Over the weekend, public opinion was galvanized by the death of Daniel Shaver, a 26-year-old father of two and traveling pest-control worker. Shaver was killed in January 2016 at an Arizona motel; but on Thursday, his killer, former police officer Philip Brailsford, was acquitted on all charges — even though Shaver was unarmed, had committed no crime, and was on the floor pleading for his life.
Unlike many other police killings that have sparked outrage, this one involved an officer and a victim who were both white. Does this tragedy point to the flaws of the Black Lives Matter movement, or validate some of the movement’s ideas? And is it indicative of larger problems with police culture in America?
There is no question that Shaver’s death was needless and horrific. The police arrived at the motel after some guests reported seeing him near the window with a gun. (He had been showing a pellet gun he used in his work to two other guests he had invited for drinks.) A sergeant yelled confusing commands telling Shaver to get down on the floor, put his hands on the back of his head, cross his legs, and crawl toward the officers — repeatedly warning him he would be shot dead if he did not obey the instructions correctly. Brailsford fired when Shaver, who was doing his best to comply, seemed to reached toward his waistband — apparently to pull up his loose shorts.
The acquittal reflects the fact that juries tend to give officers who claim they feared for their lives the benefit of the doubt — even though the law requires that the fear be reasonable. It also shows that this pattern applies even when the dead person is white and highly sympathetic.
For many critics of Black Lives Matter, such cases prove that viewing police violence through a primarily racial lens only muddies the issue. The police kill at least twice as many white Americans as black Americans every year. While the number of African-American victims is still disproportionate, this largely reflects higher rates of arrests and higher crime rates in the black community. Research suggests black suspects are no more likely to be shot than white ones (but more likely to be grabbed or pushed).
On the other hand, Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf argues that the racial politics of Black Lives Matter are irrelevant, since the group’s proposed solutions (such as training the police to kill only as a last resort) would benefit everyone. Shaver, a white man, would be alive today if such policies had been implemented.
Yet Black Lives Matters’ constructive proposals are undercut by advocacy of extreme and often explicitly racial causes: the abolition of jails, an end to detentions for minor offenses, reparations for African-Americans, even a boycott of Israeli businesses. What’s more, while some of the movement’s leaders such as Shaun King have spoken out on behalf of white victims, its activists on social media often express outrage when white suspects in tense situations are arrested with no violence — which is taken as evidence of pro-white favoritism.
We desperately need more advocacy on this issue that steers clear of racial polarization — or blanket condemnations of police. To say, as some have, that all cops view all civilians as enemies is an outrageous exaggeration. But there is a real tendency, on police forces and in the larger community, to presumptively excuse any deadly force by the police in response to any potential risk. Shaver died because of fatal police incompetence. We must stop accepting excuses for such behavior.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.