ATLANTA — Philando Castile. Eric Garner. And now Terence Crutcher. Each was a black man killed in a confrontation with an officer, with the aftermath captured on video. And each time, the video leaves the impression of a wounded man left to die alone, with no sense of urgency to try to save him.
Law enforcement experts say it’s not a sign of callousness, but of trying to ensure the officers and others are safe before approaching someone who could be armed or remain a threat even after they’ve been shot.
Civil rights activists call it the ultimate indignity and one more example of indifference and quick-to-shoot attitudes of police toward minorities.
“When the police take actions that result in injury to you and then leave you on the ground to die, well, I think that’s a constitutional violation,” said Randolph M. McLaughlin, a civil rights attorney and professor at Pace Law School in New York City.
In the latest case, Crutcher, 40, was killed after his vehicle stalled in the middle of a street in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A helicopter-mounted police camera recorded Crutcher walking toward his SUV with his hands up. The lawyer representing the officer who shot Crutcher says she fired when one of his hands reached through the SUV’s window. Attorneys for Crutcher’s family dispute that, presenting at a press conference an enlarged photo from police footage that appeared to show that Crutcher’s window was rolled up.
As he lies on the ground, the officers stand nearby but no one provides aid until about a minute or two later.
That gap has stirred questions about why he was left in the street, motionless, unarmed and seemingly no threat.
Law enforcement experts say that in those situations, police are furiously trying to figure out whether there are other weapons nearby, whether other people might be in the vehicle and how much of a threat the person is. Is it safe for police or EMTs to approach? All of that must be determined, no matter how badly injured the wounded person might appear.
In countless cases, they say, people have been shot and yet still posed a threat. In one well-known 2013 case, a man in Oregon was pulled over by a state trooper; he emerged from the vehicle wearing military camouflage, fired multiple shots and then got back into his car. Although shot in the chest, he drove a mile away before collapsing from his injuries.
More recently, the suspect in multiple stabbings at a Minnesota mall was shot three times by an off-duty officer before he succumbed to the injuries — within just an arm’s length of the officer.
Unlike the movies, which often show people falling instantly to the ground, many who are shot can still function and pose a threat.
“They will fight through the pain,” said Lance LoRusso, a lawyer and former police officer in Georgia who represents officers involved in the use of deadly force. “They had nothing in their bloodstream but determination.”
Beyond the police shootings in recent years, what disturbs civil rights activists are how people shot by officers are treated afterward.
Garner, a 43-year-old man who was accused of selling cigarettes on the street in Staten Island, died after an officer put him in a chokehold. Video of the incident shows no medical assistance was provided for at least six minutes. Castile was shot during a vehicle stop in an incident recorded by his girlfriend, who was sitting next to him. The video shows him sitting in the car, his shirt bloodied, with an officer pointing a gun at him but no one coming to his aid.
McLaughlin, the attorney, said it’s especially jarring in recent days to see Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in the bombings in New York and New Jersey, being given aid and put in an ambulance after a gun battle with police. He calls it a double standard that exposes inequality.
“If that works for an alleged terrorist — why doesn’t that same principle apply when police stop any individual in the street?” he asked.
McLaughlin urges citizens to not just film encounters with police but to also call 911 to ensure medical aid is provided more quickly “because the police may not do it, out of shock out of fear, whatever.”
John Bostain, a former police officer in Virginia, now trains law enforcement as co-owner of Command Presence Training Associates. He said it’s wrong to think officers want to shoot someone and then purposely avoid providing medical help.
In the immediate aftermath of a shooting, he said, officers are working furiously to assess and secure the scene to make sure it’s safe for the officers, any first responders as well as the public. Does the person have weapons or ready access to weapons? Is anyone else in the car who could pose a threat? It might seem to take a long time for the public viewing a video afterward, but not for the officers who are sorting through these and other questions in rapid fire, he contends.
“I don’t see this as an overt example of cops just not giving a crap and letting this guy lay there and die,” Bostain said. “I think we have to understand they’re human beings and their brains are processing things a thousand miles an hour. Their perception of time versus our perception of watching it on a video are totally different.”
“Just because we shot somebody doesn’t mean we don’t want them to survive,” he said. “We really don’t want to hurt people. … That’s just not who we are.”