Daniel Shaver did not deserve to die. He made an otherwise innocuous mistake, as people often do, especially in high pressure situations and after having consumed alcohol. But he did not deserve to die for it. Shaver could have been any one of our twenty-something children or siblings.
The events of the night in which 25-year old Shaver died nearly two years ago, are not in dispute. Shaver was drinking with two companions in a Mesa, Arizona La Quinta Inn. At one point that evening, likely showing off, Shaver pointed a pellet rifle he used for his job in pest control out of the fifth-floor window, prompting a report to the police from someone who observed this foolhardy act. When police arrived, things escalated . . . quickly.
Then it happened; as Shaver was attempting to obey one officer’s orders to crawl toward a fellow officer (who already had cuffed Shaver’s female companion), he reached back in what looks like an instinctive attempt to keep his gym shorts from falling off him. That movement prompted Officer Philip Brailsford, who had his AR-15 trained on Shaver, to instantly fire five shots, killing Shaver.
Last week, Brailsford was acquitted of charges in Shaver’s 2016 death, claiming the motion Shaver made to reach for his waistband looked as if he was reaching for a weapon; an argument with which the jury apparently agreed. As I have written previously, police are – rightfully – given broad latitude in their use of deadly force, which courts are reluctant to second guess. Brailsford’s judgement in taking lethal action that night, as incomprehensible, regrettable, and excessive as it may have been in light of what we see from the body cam, nevertheless arguably falls within this intentionally constructed safe harbor. But, whether Brailsford was legally culpable for the shooting of Shaver is not so much the point — the situation should never have escalated to where Brailsford felt the need to pull the trigger.
The problem goes well beyond any individual officer or incident.
It is unlikely that when Brailsford arrived at the La Quinta Inn that night, his objective was to kill someone. However, a perfect storm of trends in policing today make it more likely that confrontations end in such a manner. The phenomenon of increasing “militarization” of community police, fear of terrorism, and over-criminalization have run head-on into cultural problems, such as blatant disrespect of police and a rise in mass-casualty crimes, that understandably put police more on edge. Add to this dangerous brew officers who are either poorly trained, or not trained at all in de-escalation tactics, especially when in contact with individuals who possess (legally, or otherwise) firearms, and it is less a matter of if, than of when, deadly confrontations occur.
And, these are just the more obvious cases.
Police deserve our support and respect, but this should not preclude us from demanding reforms to a problem in which exercising Second Amendment rights – either intentionally, passively, or in the case of Shaver and Crawford, not at all – exposes gun owners to greater risks of deadly confrontations with police. Whether it is better training for police, demanding politicians reverse the trend of over-criminalization, or a broad cultural movement to treat officers with respect in everyday encounters; we can, and must, find a way to do better as a society that values both liberty and justice . . . and the very lives of our fellow citizens.