How a "suicide by cop" hurts everyone

(Please see update at bottom)

There was a police shooting in San Diego over the weekend, but for reasons which will become clear shortly, a lot of you may not have heard about it. I saw the news break on Twitter as so often happens these days and immediately got a familiar, sinking feeling. The suspect was described as “a fifteen year old black male” which is generally the trigger for significant amounts of social unrest. In an effort to be transparent, the San Diego PD put out what little information they had on the subject on social media almost immediately.

As the story continued to develop we learned that the cops had received a call about a “young black man” having been sighted acting suspiciously near a local school, prompting them to respond to the scene. A short time later the boy was dead. The initial coverage of the story, even from outlets who quickly learned the real details, carried some of the familiar headlines such as, “Yet Another 15-Year-Old Shot and Killed By Police, This Time in San Diego.”

Yet another...” As if the cops make it their national pastime to go around gunning down young black kids for no reason at all. This prompted some of the usual and wholly predictable responses on Twitter.

Now we get to the reason why you may not have ever seen the story on CNN or MSNBC. As the details of the investigation emerged, the story became far more convoluted. To their credit, the Washington Post set the facts out quickly and we learned that a call had indeed been placed, though the caller claimed that the suspicious looking individual “didn’t have a gun.” And there was, in fact, a “young black man” in the area, but he did have a gun. However the gun was a BB pistol and the call had been placed by the young man himself.

Just before 3:30 a.m. Saturday, someone called 911 asking police to check on a boy standing in front of Torrey Pines High School, near the northwest corner of the city. The caller referred to the teen in the third person and said the 15-year-old didn’t have a gun.

Officers saw the boy as they arrived in the school’s front parking lot, according to the statement, but the situation escalated as they got out of their cars.

The teen “pulled a handgun that was concealed in his waistband and pointed it at one of the officers,” the statement said.

Both officers pulled their guns. They shouted at the boy to drop the gun.

But he ignored their orders and started walking toward the officers while still pointing the gun.

They traced the call and confirmed that it had in fact been placed from the teenager’s own phone. When the police arrived he pulled out the pistol and pointed it at them. Showing incredible restraint, the officers held their fire and again ordered him to drop the weapon. Instead, the boy continued pointing it at them and began advancing on the officers. The rest is, sadly, history.

What happened was obvious. This was suicide by cop. The boy intentionally summoned the police there and put them in a situation where they clearly felt they were in danger of either losing their own lives or seeing an armed and clearly dangerous figure head out into the community with a weapon. They responded in the only fashion possible given the limited information available to them.

This story managed to have a lid put on it before it entirely blew up and there were riots in the streets, but had the communications lines with the public been less effective it could have turned into yet another ugly situation. And for those in the area who never read any further than the initial headlines, they came away with the mistaken belief that “yet another young black man was senselessly gunned down by the cops.”

I don’t know what went wrong in that young, unnamed boy’s life to bring him to that point, but his senseless death isn’t the only worrisome aspect of this story. The all too common theme of the cops being the bad guys continues to be propagated on social media and everyone is all too willing to assign the blame to law enforcement before any of the facts are known. This is how we wind up with riots and communities where enforcing the law becomes all the more difficult because the residents refuse to work with the cops. How many more stories like this are we going to see? I wish I had some brilliant solutions to offer for this situation, but frankly it seems like an insurmountable challenge at this point.

UPDATE: (Jazz) In a case of not following my own advice and taking too much information from social media, it’s been pointed out that at least one report in the LA Times quotes an official as saying that the boy who was shot was white, not black. They’re still not releasing a name because of his age, and obviously no picture, but it does put a slightly different spin on the story. Still, no matter the race, the cops were being blamed early and often for this and the point still remains. Suicide by cop is an especially bad form of tragedy. Leaving the original article as originally published for complete context.

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