This sounds like just one trigger pull away from an Ahmaud Arbery situation. Only this time, the New York Times reports that it involves “one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent Democrats,” and a man who wants to run for the US Senate seat held by retiring Republican Pat Toomey. In 2013, then-mayor and now lieutenant governor John Fetterman held a black jogger at gunpoint, believing him to be a shooting suspect — erroneously, as it turns out.
Eight years later, Fetterman now lectures police on “de-escalation.” No, really (via Twitchy):
“We must fall on the side of de-escalation every time,” Mr. Fetterman wrote, citing his experiences as mayor of the town of Braddock, outside Pittsburgh.
But as Mr. Fetterman — one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent Democrats — enters the race for U.S. Senate this week, an incident from his past highlights his own judgment in the heat of one such moment.
In 2013, when he was mayor, Mr. Fetterman used his shotgun to stop an unarmed Black jogger and detain him, telling the police that he had heard shots fired near his home and spotted the man running, according to the police report. “Fetterman continued to yell and state that he knows this male was shooting,” the police report says.
An officer who patted down the man, Christopher Miyares, then 28, found no weapons. The officer noted that Mr. Miyares was wearing running clothes and headphones. Mr. Miyares was released.
This sounds closer to the Arbery situation than one might think:
He said he saw someone “dressed entirely in black and a face mask” running in the direction of an elementary school. Noting that the date, in January 2013, was not long after the Sandy Hook school shooting, Mr. Fetterman said, “I made the decision to stop him from going any further until the first responders could arrive.”
According to accounts Mr. Fetterman gave in 2013 to local media, he chased the man in his pickup truck and used a 20-gauge shotgun he kept in the truck to hold him until the police appeared.
Unless Fetterman was deputized at some point, this was very much an illegal act. One cannot use lethal force or even the threat of lethal force unless they have a rational reason to believe their lives or others in their proximity are in imminent danger. Fetterman had no rational reason to believe Miyares was that kind of imminent threat, and as it turns out, he wasn’t. Miyares told reporters at the time that the “shots” Fetterman heard were bottle rockets, which Fetterman denies, but even if there were shots, Fetterman should have called the police. Owning a gun does not confer deputization onto owners, and they do not become a Junior G-Man no matter what their fantasies might be.
It might be even worse, depending on whose story one believes. Miyares accused Fetterman of aiming the shotgun at his chest, which would have made this a case of assault with a deadly weapon, as well as false arrest and potentially worse. For some reason, however, Fetterman never got charged in the case. Perhaps that had something to do with Fetterman being in his second of four terms as mayor, or perhaps his status as “one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent Democrats.” It might well be both.
Law enforcement isn’t the only institution with some explanations due, either. Imagine, if you will, what the coverage of this incident would have been even in 2013 if Fetterman was a Republican. The media would have eaten him alive, and not for no good reason either. Fetterman’s assumption that a black jogger with a face mask was an armed criminal would have been shredded as an example of systemic racism within the GOP and in Pennsylvania in general. Instead, everyone in the media appeared more interested in, er, de-escalation for Fetterman’s sake.
In 2021, that’s a tougher sell, which the New York Times tacitly notes by reporting on this incident at the start of Fetterman’s campaign. Fetterman wants to pre-empt the obvious problems this will create in a Democratic primary by putting out a campaign video explaining the situation, created after the NYT started sniffing around the story. Best of luck in selling this “I had to profile the scary black man” message, even with all the choking up, in 2021 among progressive Democrats.
Update: I initially wrote that Fetterman was going to compete for Rob Portman’s seat, but Portman’s retiring in Ohio. Pat Toomey is retiring in PA. I’ve fixed it now, and apologize for the error.
Update: Twitter pal and attorney Cam Yzerman thinks it would have been tough to convict Fetterman:
You may want to check PA law on this. This is not my area of expertise, but assuming that the THREAT of deadly force is distinct from the use of deadly force, Fetterman is probably in the legal clear (or as mayor would have been real hard to convict).https://t.co/Yn3sAp7BL4.
— Cam Yzerman (@CamYzerman) February 10, 2021
Here’s the relevant text:
(b) Private person’s use of force in making arrest.–
(1) A private person who makes, or assists another private person in making a lawful arrest is justified in the use of any force which he would be justified in using if he were summoned or directed by a peace officer to make such arrest, except that he is justified in the use of deadly force only when he believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or another.
(2) A private person who is summoned or directed by a peace officer to assist in making an arrest which is unlawful, is justified in the use of any force which he would be justified in using if the arrest were lawful, unless he knows that the arrest is unlawful.
(3) A private person who assists another private person in effecting an unlawful arrest, or who, not being summoned, assists a peace officer in effecting an unlawful arrest, is justified in using any force which he would be justified in using if the arrest were lawful, if:
(i) he believes the arrest is lawful; and
(ii) the arrest would be lawful if the facts were as he believes them to be.
Essentially, this is a good-faith cover for citizens arrests. I think it might have been tough to convict Fetterman with this statutory language in effect, but I still don’t think it actually covers the circumstances either. Fetterman wasn’t directed to do anything, nor was the arrest lawful in any sense. Pulling a gun on someone without any indication of a threat is illegal no matter whether you’re conducting a citizens arrest or not.