Who would ever be a cop?
If Officer Aaron Dean is guilty of murder, what’s next? Should we charge doctors with murder when they make mistakes and someone dies? Is professional malpractice really now a strict liability offense for murder whenever someone dies?
So is the new standard that whenever a cop — even just mistakenly — shoots a citizen while doing his job, it’s murder?
If so, then let’s be very clear what the natural consequence will be: cops will be less likely to do their jobs.
Really, would you want to be a cop?
You get a call at 2:30 in the morning. Adrenaline running. You hear something. You overreact. You shoot. You kill an innocent.
That is what happened last weekend when Aaron Dean, a young, white, Fort Worth, Texas officer, killed Atatiana Jefferson, a young black woman. Dean was called to her home to investigate an open door early in the morning. He shot and killed Jefferson when she appeared on the other side of the window with a gun in her hand.
To be sure, Dean violated police policy by failing to identify he was a police officer when he suddenly saw someone — Jefferson — standing on the other side of the window. It is unclear whether in that split second he saw she had a gun. Either way, his violation was deadly.
In the old days, when police had license to do anything, nothing would have happened to Dean. There would be no consequence. That was, of course, wrong.
But the pendulum has swung so far that today — because of a mistake with no ill intent — Dean is charged with murder. He went from being on patrol looking for a bad guy to being the bad guy in a split second.
That too is wrong. Very wrong.
The proper consequence should be you lose your job. You violated policy. You made a mistake. You were negligent in doing your job, and it cost a life.
You — and your employer the police department — may also be sued civilly for the mistake. Prepare for a big-money judgment against you.
But losing your job and suffering financial penalty is one thing. Losing your liberty is another.
Absent ill intent, an officer should, at most, be charged with manslaughter, the standard of which is usually gross indifference or recklessness.
Such seemed the case with Amber Guyger, the Dallas cop who in 2018 mistakenly entered her neighbor’s apartment while off duty and tragically shot and killed Botham Jean. Guyger was convicted of murder.
But murder for an on-duty officer, like Dean this past weekend, for screwing up on the job? And perhaps piling on civil rights claims, as if an officer at 2:30 a.m. can make out race in a split second through a window, and then fire purposefully because of it?
Dean’s case is particularly bad — meaning he should lose his job, not his liberty — because reports now state that Jefferson, scared the cop outside was an intruder, pointed a gun at him from inside the window. With a gun pointed at him at 2:30 in the morning, he made a split second, tragic decision.
You might, too, in that situation, no matter your color. The truth of the matter, which we will never know, is that had Dean not fired, Jefferson might have shot him, fearful he was an intruder.
My goal is not to absolve all cops. As with any profession, there are rogue cops who cross lines. Murder charges for cops might at times be justified, as we sadly know here in Chicago.
But Dean’s case is not one of them.
If Dean is guilty of murder, what’s next? Should we charge nurses and doctors with murder when they make mistakes and someone dies? How about a firefighter who drives the truck too slow? Or the construction manager of the building in New Orleans that collapsed and killed a worker inside?
Is professional malpractice really now a strict liability offense for murder whenever someone dies?
As for the racial overlay, there is, sadly, enough racism in this world we don’t need to go looking and manufacture more. We don’t eviscerate our country’s sad racist history by charging white cops with murder every time they shoot a person of color.
The logical consequence of all this will be police won’t get out of their cars, what some call the “Ferguson effect.” Like you, almost all of them just want to do their jobs and go back to their families.
But if in doing their dangerous job they risk going to jail for murder when screwing up, good luck recruiting cops. Don’t complain when they stay in their cars. There’s way too much downside to do otherwise.
And as a result, we will all be less safe.
William Choslovsky is a lawyer in Chicago.
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