Police Are Not Heroes

In a world where police officers are actual heroes, Scout Schultz would still be alive.

I’ve been wrestling with the death of Scout Schultz.

Scout was a student at Georgia Tech, and president of Pride Alliance, a campus-based LGBT advocacy group.

Scout was 21, and had a history of mental illness; in fact Scout appears to have orchestrated their confrontation with police as a suicidal act.

I’ve watched that video, and the startled cry that follows the sound of that gunshot is shattering.

That sound made me furious, and forced me to reach out to a person who I will not name. This friend and I have known one another for many years, but we’ve gone in two different but related directions: I into the law, he into enforcing it.

He suggested something in the beginning of our conversation that I think is critical and often overlooked.

Police officers are not hired to be heroes.

The logic of that seems immediately apparent, but I didn’t really think that way — not until he raised the point.

Cops are hired to enforce the law and maintain public order, and both objectives are considered subordinate to the maintenance of their own physical safety.

Like me, my friend wants to go home at the close of business.

This is how he framed our conversation.

Scout had a knife (which may have not been opened). Scout called the police and reported themselves as suspicious, dangerous, and armed. Police encountered Scout. Ordered them to drop their weapon. Scout refused. Scout screamed “kill me.” Scout advanced on police. Scout died.

A police officer that chooses personal safety over the life of a manic person is not legally incorrect in using deadly force if that manic person presents a legitimate threat. Where the mentally ill person is smaller, weaker, surrounded, outnumbered and armed only with a pocket knife, the danger to the officer is still real, though slight.

By pulling the trigger, that police officer has met the extreme bare minimum of what is required or allowed.

Americans do not celebrate the bare minimum. And that is why I do not have a thin-blue-line vanity plate.

I am not saying what the police did was illegal (it may have been wrong, but just because something is wrong does not make it unnecessary—and that is a different conversation).

I am saying it cannot be called heroic. Had the three officers risked the pocket knife and wrestled Scout Schultz to the ground and transported them to a mental health facility — that would have been heroic.

In fact most of what police do is not heroic. Heroes, by definition, are the exception and not the rule.

The police officers who died saving people on 9/11 are heroes by virtue of their actions that day, not because of the job they chose to do or the fact that that job exposed them to danger.

Had those men and women — true heroes — applied the logic of Scout Schultz’s legal executioners, there would be many more NYPD officers alive today, and quite a few more dead New Yorkers.

Not everyone who joins the Army, for instance, is awarded a Medal of Honor.

This is an important — if obvious — point.

Part of our problem with policing is how we view that institution. Being a law enforcement officer isn’t any more or less noble than being a garbageman. If anything, we should encourage a healthy skepticism of police because unlike garbage-men they have signed up — to be paid — to shoot mentally ill people when those people are non-compliant.

Or to shoot you, if you are being non-compliant.

That is not a prejudiced statement. That is a recital of fact.

If we as a society were less reverential and more skeptical of police, people would think twice about becoming cops — and cops would interact differently with the people they are charged with keeping obedient to the law.

Put another way; in a world where police officers are actual heroes, Scout Schultz would still be alive.