Do People Who Resist Arrest Have a Right to Life?

Many questions follow in the wake of police shootings.

Primarily, what could the victim — whether black, white, brown, or other — have done differently? Did he or she remain calm and respectful, doing just as an officer asked?

In some cases, the suspect had no time to be respectful, as the police gave no opportunity to surrender. Look no further than the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. In other cases, such as that of Joseph Carlton, the suspect raises a firearm at an officer, who is then without question justified in opening fire.

Few would argue the suspect who points a gun at the authorities hasn’t sacrificed his or her right to physical safety. The less clear-cut cases are obviously where the controversies lie. Couldn’t the Baton Rouge officers have each grabbed an arm of Alton Sterling if they thought he was reaching for a gun, instead of shooting him repeatedly in the chest? Did Philando Castile tell the officer he had a firearm and a concealed carry permit before he was shot to death? Did Mike Brown actually attack a policeman?

Questions like this have torn the country apart, and won’t be settled here. But perhaps there is a sliver of room for common ground, concerning other cases, that should be explored.

Putting aside the obvious fact that many lives could be spared if American police were armed with rubber-coated bullets and the studies that show implicit biases against minorities make officers more likely to kill them, it does not seem like such a radical idea that when suspects resist arrest — disobey or struggle but do not grab a gun and do not assault an officer — they still have a right to life. That is, they still have a constitutional right, under the 14th Amendment, not to be deprived of life without due process of law (this is not to say those who assault officers deserve to die on the spot — officers should do all they can to prevent civilian deaths while defending themselves; we are simply trying to find common ground here).

After all, this is what each of us would want if the suspect was our own son, brother, father, or husband. We would want our sister, wife, mother, or daughter to retain the right to life even if she makes a terrible decision and grows angry or disrespectful with an officer, disobeys, or even struggles while being handcuffed. We tend to look at people who resist arrest as “criminals” who “get what they deserve” when they are riddled with bullets and bleed out on the sidewalk. Yet this is a standard unlikely to be applied to our own friends and family members were they to exhibit the same behaviors and make the same mistakes. As I wrote elsewhere, in that case people

would expect the police to find a nonviolent, nonlethal solution to the situation. He or she would want to live, or want his or her child to live, to see a constitutionally-guaranteed day in court…

If [one who defends police actions] could say honestly, “If it was my son, the police acted reasonably in killing him” then he or she has been morally consistent… If [one] has a change of heart, and says, “If it was my son, the police actions were not justified,” we can see how bankrupt [our ethics actually are].

If you think the police justified in shooting your father if he was being disrespectful or struggling out of anger, you may as well stop reading this now. But if you think that’s simply not egregious enough to justify the police killing him, you have to extend that standard to others and say that yes, people who resist arrest — excluding those who brandish a gun or actually assault an officer — have an unquestionable right to life.

So when Walter Scott was shot in the back as he ran from an officer, his right to life was violated. When Eric Garner became frustrated and resisted handcuffs and was choked to death, his right to life was violated. When Laquan McDonald, armed only with a small knife, walked past officers at a distance, ignoring their commands, and was shot 16 times, his right to life was violated. When Sam DuBose tried to prevent an officer from opening his car door, also starting his car, and the officer shot him in the head, his right to life was violated. Had an officer in McKinney, Texas, gunned down the girl screaming at him or the boys antagonizing him, he would have violated their rights.

The answer to “Do those who resist arrest have the right to life?” in America today is, in practice, most certainly no. In theory, for too many Americans, it is only yes if your own family is involved. Both of these must change.

And if they do, police officers who violate a citizen’s right to life must spend time behind bars. That is not only justice but also may prevent tragedies in the future.

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