The graphic video from the killing of Daniel Shiver was released after the jury decided to acquit ex-Mesa police officer Philip Brailsford of second-degree murder and reckless manslaughter. The Mesa police department and Mesa police union both supported Brailsford, but it’s important to receive feedback from police sources who don’t have a vested interest in the case.
Norm Stamper, a former police officer who served for 28 years with the San Diego police force and six years as the chief of police in Seattle, gave his thoughts on Twitter. He responded to the tweet by the journalist Shaun King who stated, “Sadly I’ve studied 100s of videos of American police executing non-violent, unarmed people. This is one of the worst I’ve ever witnessed.” Stamper wrote, “One of the worst I’ve seen, as well. Heart-stopping, stomach-turning. No room in policing for cops this scared and ill-prepared.”
Is that a fair criticism? After all, police were called to the La Quinta Inn where Shaver was staying because witnesses saw him pointing a gun out of the window of his room. Unknown to the six officers who arrived at the scene, it was a pellet gun that Shaver used for his work in pest control. He was showing it to a woman he had met earlier in the day.
However, Shaver and his female guest clearly tried to follow the verbal commands from Mesa Police Sgt. Charles Langley, which were highly confrontational and contradictory. At one point, Daniel Shaver was face down on the floor of the hallway with his hands on the top of his head and his feet crossed.
Instead of ordering one of the six officers to handcuff Shaver, Sgt. Langley yelled for Shaver to rise to his knees. That decision ultimately cost Shaver his life as any unforeseen moment by his hands were considered threatening by the officers. While on his knees, Daniel Shaver put his hands behind his back, which led Sgt. Langley to scream, “Put your hands up in the air! You do that again and we’re shooting you!” A sobbing Shaver begged them to not shoot him.
Sgt. Langley then ordered Shaver to crawl towards the officers on his knees with his hands in the air. He also told Shaver to not move his hands, even if it meant falling on his face. That command essentially acknowledged that it’s really difficult to crawl forward on your knees with your hands in the air, especially for someone who was drunk like Shaver.
While crawling, Shaver tragically did make a quick movement with his right hand toward his hip. And in fairness to ex-Mesa officer Philip Brailsford, that movement could easily have been interpreted as someone reaching for a gun. However, Shaver didn’t have a gun and he was shot dead in reaction to that movement. Most likely, Shaver was trying to pull his pants up.
Should one twitchy movement by an unarmed man justify a police shooting?
Raeford Davis, a former police officer who is an outspoken critic of modern law enforcement, adamantly disagrees. Davis, watched the video and acknowledged that it was truly frightening when Shaver quickly reached toward his hip. However, he stressed that caution needed to be exercised.
“Cops have to wait. You have to see that gun…I know that you might get killed, but that’s what it is to be a professional. We talk about cops sacrificing, that’s what you sacrifice…Especially in that particular situation, no way should they fire just on that movement. No way. You’ve got to wait for him to bring something out. And even then, you’ve really got to wait to give him an opportunity (to throw the gun away.)”
Obviously, that’s not the typical sentiment from the police community. However, Raeford Davis isn’t speaking from a theoretical point of view. On multiple occasions, he had a gun pointed at him during his four years a patrolman in North Charleston, SC. (An injury forced him to permanently leave police work.)
Without firing a shot, Davis once had to physically subdue an attacker at point-blank range who was trying to shoot him. On another occasion, he was chasing a suspect who grabbed a gun from his pocket. Davis reacted by pulling his gun and aiming it at the young man. However, he didn’t pull the trigger because the suspect didn’t turn around. Instead, the suspect ditched the gun and kept running. In Davis’s experience, the majority of these types of run-ins result in the person throwing away the gun and fleeing the scene.
Given that experience, Davis was exasperated by the performance of the officers in Mesa, AZ and noted that there was no actual danger, only perceived danger. “They put Daniel Shaver in a position where it was impossible to comply and then they killed him with no gun ever seen,” he said.
Davis gave several critiques. For instance, he acknowledged that Sgt. Langley was probably concerned that an armed gunman could have been present in the hotel room. However, there were clearly enough officers available to handcuff Shaver with adequate backup.
Also, if the officers insisted upon ordering Shaver to approach them, rather than cuff him while he was on the ground, it could have been done in a much safer manner for both parties. Shaver should have been instructed to walk slowly backward while facing away from the officers with his hands behind his head and fingers interlaced.
In addition, Davis stressed the importance of de-escalating the situation. These stressful moments require a calming influence and the highest-ranked officer, Sgt. Langley, should have filled that role. Instead, his threats clearly added to Shaver’s nervous behavior. Davis also pointed out that by ratcheting up the adrenaline in the room, it made his fellow officers more likely to have a quicker trigger finger.
(Based on the video, it’s easy to assume that the shooter was the person screaming out commands, Sgt. Charles Langley. However, the shooter was his subordinate, Philip Brailsford.)
With that said, Raeford Davis feels this is part of a much larger problem with the “warrior mindset” of police culture. It starts at the academy. “The training is very fear-based and it creates more of these types of situations than it prevents,” says Davis.
Trainees are forced to watch videos of officers who have been killed in action. It demonstrates how quickly their lives can be taken away in an instant, but it also creates a “scenario fulfillment” in which innocuous movements by ordinary citizens can result in a fatal police shooting.
Davis did receive some training in de-escalation, but it was only a fraction of the firearms training. He notes that police officers are trained to look forward to that “moment of ‘glory.’” They’re also unofficially taught the legalese and verbiage if they need to protect themselves from liability.
This poor training, along with other systemic factors such as low accountability and a militaristic culture, contribute substantially to America’s unjustifiably-high police shooting statistics. To be specific, there were 963 people shot and killed by police officers last year, according to The Washington Post’s database.
Despite Davis’s lengthy criticisms of the culture, he hopes that Americans don’t generalize all police officers as bloodthirsty tyrants. In Davis’ estimation, he encountered situations roughly every two months in which he could have shot someone on duty and the shootings would have been deemed justifiable according to his training and police policy.
That’s six potential shootings every year and Davis considers his experience to be in line with most other officers. Consequently, Davis believes that there would be a much higher number of police shootings if every officer blindly followed their training and protocols. Hence, the vast majority of officers seem to be using a great deal of restraint, especially when there are so many systemic forces encouraging them to pull the trigger and ask questions later.
“It is not because of the training. It is despite the training. It’s the humanity of the police officers that prevents a lot more shootings.” However, to be clear, that wasn’t meant as a reassuring measure. It should be concerning, particularly for the people who give unconditional support for law enforcement.
After all, this is an institution that overtly and inadvertently encourages the use of lethal force. Hence, if an individual officer is prone to violence, that person is operating within an institution that will, in most cases, sanction that behavior.
Brian Saady is a freelance writer who focuses on a number of human rights and criminal justices issues. He’s also the author of four books, including a three-book series, Rackets, which is about the legalization of drugs and gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution.