The Perils of Rushing to Judgment

In the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting or other high-stakes law enforcement encounter, emotions are heightened for all concerned — the police who took necessary action to stop a threat to themselves or others, bystanders who witnessed a distressing event, family members who may be shocked or grieving, and the community grappling with the repercussions of crime and violence. In the confusion, before all the evidence is gathered and analyzed, people naturally wonder and speculate about what happened. Unfortunately, as several recent incidents demonstrate, misinformation and biased assumptions often rush in to fill the gaps before the true facts are known, and many critics are all too hasty to unjustly accuse police of abuses that later prove to be false when the full picture emerges.

One such case is that of the tragic Fullerton Police officer-involved shooting that led to the death of 17-year-old Hannah Williams on the 91 Freeway in Anaheim on July 5. At first, information was scarce about the events that led to the fatal confrontation. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office stated only that Williams had been driving at high speed, her SUV and the officer’s vehicle had collided at some point, and a replica handgun had been found near her at the scene. Struggling to reconcile the news with the daughter they knew, her family said they had no idea who the gun belonged to or how it ended up at the scene of the shooting, mistakenly claimed that officers did not find it until after searching the car’s interior, and suggested that it might not have been on her person or otherwise in plain sight. They also declared that the incident “appears to be another unjustified shooting of a young person of color.” Media and activists were quick to make the same assumption, connecting the event to other police shootings of unarmed suspects and the wider debate over law enforcement uses of force.

When the Fullerton P.D. released body-camera footage of the incident on July 12, however, the video showed a different story. The on-duty uniformed officer, who has not been publicly identified, was driving eastbound in his marked police vehicle to take his K-9 to the veterinarian when he saw Williams’ SUV speeding past him in the same direction. When the officer attempted to make a traffic stop, the vehicle appeared to intentionally collide with his patrol car, then made an abrupt U-turn into oncoming traffic before coming to a stop facing the wrong way. The officer approached the driver’s side door, and Williams exited and pointed the replica handgun at him. The gun was designed to look like a Beretta 92 FS and, in violation of California law, did not have an orange tip to indicate that it wasn’t real. As Williams advanced toward the officer with her arms outstretched and the gun aimed at him, he shot her, handcuffed her and then provided medical aid until paramedics arrived. Unfortunately, Williams later died in the hospital.

The department also released a 9-1-1 call from Williams’ father, reporting that she had taken the family’s rental car without permission and was on antidepressants, and he feared she might harm herself. During the call, when asked if his daughter was “white, black, Asian or Hispanic,” he responded, “white.” According to the Orange County Register, Williams’ mother is Latina and her father is black, but his answer indicated that Williams was so fair-skinned that the officer would not have perceived her as a person of color from her appearance, thus undermining the claim of racial bias. It was also abundantly clear that, having had his car apparently deliberately struck and then being approached by a suspect brandishing a realistic-looking weapon, the officer had objectively reasonable cause to fear for his life and was justified in using force to stop a potentially deadly threat. Even the civil rights attorney assisting the family, S. Lee Merritt, told the Los Angeles Times that the officer “couldn’t have known” at the time that Williams was not a danger to others, only to herself. “We understand that when an officer encounters someone in a shooting stance it may be appropriate to respond with the use of deadly force, given the scenario,” he added. (However, just five days later, Merritt filed a claim for damages against the city on behalf of the family, arguing that the officer had not followed department protocols for a felony traffic stop, somehow should have realized Williams was in a mental health crisis and could have de-escalated the situation.)

Another case of premature judgment and vilification of a law enforcement officer occurred in Texas in May, when a white state trooper was accused of sexually assaulting a black woman during a DUI traffic stop. The allegation went viral on social media hours later with claims that the woman had been raped, kidnapped and violently threatened by the officer, who was identified by name. The officer was subjected to what the local district attorney called “horrible abuse across the country” online, while an unrelated trooper with the same name in a different county had to get police protection for himself and his family after receiving death threats. When the body-camera video was released, however, it showed no evidence of any such behavior. In nearly two hours of footage of the very routine and mundane traffic stop and arrest, all parties appeared calm and the officer acted professionally and courteously throughout. In light of the evidence, the woman’s attorney, S. Lee Merritt — interestingly, the same lawyer from the Fullerton case — apologized and admitted the accusation was false. (In a further twist, the woman later stated she had never made any such claims or authorized anyone to make them on her behalf. Since she did not lodge a formal accusation with law enforcement, she was not charged with making a false complaint.)

These incidents and others like them show how easily people can be led to jump to conclusions about law enforcement in a culture fueled by outrage rather than facts. “In the aftermath of a police shooting, no one benefits from an immediate rush to judgment or sacrificing a police officer’s career solely to quiet the crowd,” says LAAPOA President Marshall McClain. “Doing what’s right generally requires cool reflection rather knee-jerk reaction. Justice requires truth that is fair and transparent.

“At a time when we need to be coming together as a nation, these types of incidents shouldn’t further divide us due to incorrect, incomplete and uninformed comments that try to shape a narrative without even knowing the story,” McClain continues. “Sadly, these high-profile cases, true or false, have shaped some people’s beliefs about what police officers are, and those negative judgments can persist even after the truth comes out. If we really want to reform law enforcement for the better, the folks with the bullhorns need to help with the solution — and ridding the country of laws or ridding communities of law enforcement is not the solution. Being part of the discussion toward more training to address how our ever-changing communities interact with law enforcement, and in turn how law enforcement interacts with the community, is a start.”