Mike is a full-time police officer and tactical medic. He currently works as a K9 handler, SWAT team member, and Police Trainer. Mike started Tactical Tangents as part of his fundamental purpose to save lives. His goal is to enhance the survival of police officers and concerned citizens by helping them become better, smarter, faster, and more efficient. His opinions are for informational purposes only and do not reflect those of his employer or any other government agency.
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In July 2016 a police officer in Minnesota stopped a car and the driver informed the officer that he was armed. The driver was apparently reaching for his wallet, but the officer perceived that he was reaching for the gun. The officer gave him instructions to not reach for it, the driver said that he wasn’t, and somewhere in the mix the officer shot and killed him. The driver’s name was Philando Castile. The officer was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted by a jury. He was fired by his agency.
The videos that we have seen do not show exactly how Castile reacted to the officer’s instructions as he reached for his wallet or the gun. What we can tell you is that people do strange things under stress. It is not uncommon for someone to tell a police officer that they have a knife or gun while also reaching for it, as if to illustrate where exactly it is, or maybe to surrender it. While that doesn’t make much sense and is obviously not a good idea—it happens subconsciously and people do it all the time. It is also not uncommon for a person to automatically switch off their thinking brain and activate their emotional brain when self-preservation kicks into gear, and that causes the sort of fight-or-flight response that bypasses rational decision making. There was an indication that Mr. Castile was under the influence of marijuana. Maybe that is true, and maybe his judgment or reaction time (to the officer’s instructions) were affected. But based on the audio from the dash camera footage, he seems fairly calm and reasonable. The crucial point of this incident, that moment when he was doing whatever it was he was doing with his hands, isn’t part of the video that is available for us to see. Did the officer’s emotional response cause him to over react? It seems likely, because if you listen to the audio you’ll hear the officer screaming at volume 11 long after the shots are fired. That is a training failure, and a difficult one to fix.
We don’t have to look very far to find a narrative that Mr. Castile’s race had something to do with it. In fact, the governor of Minnesota said in a statement after the incident that he didn’t think this would have happened if the occupants of the car were a different race. That’s a bold claim. The problem with playing the race card on an individual officer is that we are using generalizations and prejudice against them, which is the same sort of behavior we are trying to defeat. Stop feeding into that narrative. We can have a talk about systemic or institutionalized racism and inequality another time—but when we are looking at situations like this, it is best that we examine the circumstances of that particular case.
Back to the shooting: Do we think criminal culpability was a factor? No, and a jury agreed. Do we think it was acceptable? Also no. You are going to find polarized opinions about this case—one side will say it was justified, they will point to the acquittal and the difficult job that the police have to do. They will point to previous cases where someone acted compliant to entice complacency before carrying out an attack. They will remind you that action is faster than reaction. The other side will demand justice—they will argue that he was influenced by racism, and they’ll point to crime or incarceration statistics or other incidents that got a lot of publicity. They’ll say that cops are trigger happy, and they will point to instances where the police over-reacted or let their ego interfere with their judgment. A use-of-force can be non-criminal and also not acceptable—but both sides of that debate are often too busy trying to be “right” that we struggle to find common ground and understanding with each other. Based on the evidence available to us, this case is questionable—and we won’t ever know what really happened. Questionable doesn’t mean bad, but it also doesn’t mean certainly good. We can demand that the police do better and also acknowledge that the officer might have been spooked, made a mistake, and did not have ill-intent.
Either way—we have to do better. All of us. Rather than blindly defend every use of force that makes its way on to YouTube, police officers should offer perspective, build understanding, and train hard to make sure we avoid mistakes in the future. Citizens and the media might remember that police officers are human—that when influenced by self-preservation, emotions often sidestep reason. That isn’t an excuse for what happened—but something we must account for when we examine criminal culpability, as the jury did in this case. Community leaders should render support to give police departments the funding, resources, and expertise they need for adequate training—not the sort of training to fill political check-boxes that they can brag about to the press, but high-quality proficiency training that will enhance public safety as much as officer safety. And all of us should remember that we stand among each other—this isn’t about the thin blue line—there a big beautiful banner for which we stand, and it’s red, white, and blue.
About the author:
Mike Doyle is a full-time police officer and tactical medic. He works as a K9 handler, SWAT team member, and Police Trainer. Mike started Tactical Tangents as part of his fundamental purpose to save lives. His goal is to enhance the survival of police officers and concerned citizens by helping them become better, smarter, faster, and more efficient. His opinions are for informational purposes only and do not reflect those of his employer or any other government agency.