When Killer Cops Walk

On June 28, a San Bernardino jury acquitted Ivory J. Webb of attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm in a confrontation caught on video tape. He had shot Elio Carrion three times in the back, shoulder and chest as the unarmed man knelt on the ground. Carrion, a U.S. airman back from Iraq when Webb shot him, survived, but needed months of physical therapy.

A typical American would have likely been convicted. But Webb was not typical: He was a sheriff’s deputy on the job when he shot Carrion. After a high-speed car chase, Webb ordered Carrion, who had been a passenger in a now-crashed Corvette, to kneel and then stand up, and then shot Carrion while he was doing as told.

Men in uniform often get a benefit of the doubt that others do not.

On the night of December 26, 2001, Cory Maye was asleep in his Prentiss, Miss. apartment. He heard a loud crash. Concerned with the safety of his 18-month-old daughter, Maye fired three shots and killed Ron Jones, who had broken in through the back door. But Jones was a police officer, looking for drugs on a false tip with a warrant naming the apartment but not Cory Maye, who had a clean criminal record. Maye dropped his weapon once he heard that the invaders were police. He was arrested, tried for murder and sentenced to death. His sentence has since been commuted to life in prison, but the case that Maye reasonably thought he was defending himself is much stronger than the case that Sheriff Deputy Webb was.

This disparity in presumed innocence becomes more interesting when a cop shoots a veteran, such as with Webb and Carrion. While at war, U.S. troops generally are assumed to be acting justly. Atrocities are seen as the work of a few bad apples. Had Carrion killed an Iraqi sitting in his own home, or had an Iraqi shot Carrion, most Americans likely would take Carrion’s side. But since it was an American law enforcer who shot him, Carrion doesn’t enjoy the same favoritism.

Ironically, Carrion even cried, “I’m in the military” and “I’m on your side” to Webb before being shot. But can we assume all Americans carrying guns on behalf of the government are on the same side? If not, can we assume they’re all on the side of justice?

On November 6, 2006, U.S. Marine Derek J. Hale, back from Iraq on a combat-related discharge, sat peacefully on a friend’s porch in Wilmington, Del. in the late afternoon. He was in town to participate in the Toys for Tots program and was house-sitting for the friend. He had no criminal record, but he had recently joined a motorcycle club that, unbeknown to him, was being investigated for drug dealing. Without any warrant for his arrest or to search him, a team of at least eight undercover state police officers approached him from their unmarked SUV, commanded his friend’s ex-wife and her two kids to keep back, and tasered him seven times without provocation. As Hale writhed on the ground, vomiting and convulsing from the tasing, police Lieutenant William Browne closed in and shot him, point blank, three times in the chest.

Like Webb, Browne claimed self-defense. But Hale was no threat to anyone when he was killed. He didn’t resist arrest. He had no weapon. He had no chance. Again, had an Iraqi insurgent killed him, even in far more ambiguous circumstances, most Americans would have assumed he was in the right and his killer in the wrong. But when an American police officer shoots him in an act of cold-blooded murder, there’s nothing to see here, please move along. The Delaware attorney general cleared Browne of criminal charges; he’s back on duty, and just last week the Wilmington Police Department announced that he had not even violated police procedure or policy.

When our cops are shooting and killing our troops, perhaps we should wonder about giving either group unquestioned faith. When different rules apply to police officers than to everyone else, what exists is a police state. The seeds of totalitarianism are planted when the state’s agents have a different moral code than the rest of us.

Maybe Carrion’s shooter and Hale’s killer shouldn’t be in prison. Maybe that’s not the solution. But is there any doubt that had a typical American repeatedly shot an unarmed, defenseless person, different standards would apply? If so, there is no rule of law; there is only might makes right, where the police force’s might is all that matters and justice is but an illusion.

ANTHONY GREGORY is a writer and musician living in Berkeley, Calif. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at U.C. Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute, a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation, and a guest editor of Strike The Root,.