I invited two veteran Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers to one of my classes at Davidson College this month. We were studying implicit bias and policing. I spoke to the officers beforehand but I remained silent throughout their 90-minute exchange with students, not wanting to get in the way.
They were professional and courteous; the students were respectful and asked probing questions. I was glad my students were confronted with a particular story from one of the officers, who had shot a black man early in his career. Back on the job following an investigation that deemed the shooting justified, he was confronted with the possibility of having to shoot yet another black man. That time, he re-holstered his pistol in the middle of what would become a fight that would leave him with serious but not life-threatening injuries – even though the man tried to point a high-powered rifle at him.
Why did he re-holster? Because he was thinking about what it would look like to shoot yet another black man. That decision cost him a special assignment. He fielded questions from colleagues wondering why he didn’t shoot.
“My regret is putting myself and other community members at risk,” he told me after the class. “Luckily it worked out back then. It doesn’t always work out that way.”
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I wasn’t sure how my students would react. I’ll let one of them tell you how it hit him. Jonathan Sheperd-Smith, an African-American senior from Atlanta, thanked the officer for saving a life, but wondered why the officer didn’t see that as an unquivocal blessing, like he did. Here are Sheperd-Smith’s thoughts:
“Hearing a Caucasian officer reflect with regret on an instance in which he hesitated on taking another human life, the life of a black man, brought where we are as a society out of the shadows of political correctness and into the light of truth. Yes, I believe the black man had been a criminal. Yes, I believe the officer’s safety was at risk. Yes, I believe that others in the area were put at some level of risk by the officer’s action.
“What I also believe is that though there could’ve been casualties, there weren’t any.
“The assailant was successfully held accountable for his crime. Both men, criminal and officer, lived to tell the tale. To hear a human being say he regretted not taking the life of another human being because he had shot another person of the same race not too long ago – in the same manner a child hesitates before disobeying his parents, shows me how broken the system is. To hear this statement of regret in the same breath as the potential career opportunities missed, to see the body posture rigid with righteousness, was to make real to me, as a black man, that I still live in a society where my life is expendable; a society where maybe my life is worth a job promotion, or avoiding condemnation from peers; a society where taking my life is just “following protocol.”
“It is hard for me to believe, even in hindsight, society would have seen justice in a situation that led to a death without trial, judge, or jury.
“I didn’t, and still do not, think the cop was corrupt or racist. I think that he, like all of us, is a victim in a system that makes him blind to the flaws in said system. This troubles me more than the officer’s statement.
“Someone could’ve been killed, and if the officer had shot that black man under those circumstances, it would have been legal, and probably even moral.
“But no one was killed. A society where a man is taught to feel regret for such an outcome is a broken one indeed.”