A cop's shoot/no-shoot: When is a 'good decision' a 'deadly hesitation'?

The current climate in the press and the public may be making our officers more fearful of life after the deadly-force encounter

Video recently surfaced of newly-minted New Richmond (Ohio) Police Officer Jesse Kidder backpedaling away from a rapidly approaching subject – 27-year-old Michael Wilcox – who was charging him with one hand in his pocket and repeatedly yelling “shoot me!” Officer Kidder backpedaled up the street away from Wilcox, and ended up tripping and falling to his back – gun in hand – before recovering to his feet. The suspect – almost inexplicably – surrenders and is taken into custody almost immediately thereafter. 

Wilcox had been charged for the fatal shooting of his 25-year-old girlfriend, Courtney Fowler, and is a person of interest in a second slaying in Kentucky. According to reports, Kidder was advised by dispatchers prior to arriving at the scene that Wilcox was potentially suicidal.  

No shots were fired, and the suspect was peacefully taken into custody. The video has been lauded by some and derided by others. 

Stopping Short of Second-Guessing

It’s impossible for anyone who wasn’t present to know exactly what was happening at the incident in Ohio, but I will offer these three opinions:

  • Would Kidder have been justified in shooting Wilcox, according to the Supreme Court’s reasonableness standard and existing Court precedents? Yes.
  • Would Kidder have been in the fight for his life had the subject attacked him rather than turned around and disengaged in that critical instant? Yes.
  • Would Kidder have been skewered by the public and the press – who know nothing of the Court’s standards or their meanings for police training and tactics – had he shot Wilcox? Yes. 

Let’s focus not on the Kidder-Wilcox confrontation, but on the broader issue of hesitation on the part of our officers in potentially life-threatening confrontations, and how it may be affected by recent high-profile current events. 

This topic was discussed numerous times in the halls at ILEETA 2015 on the first day of the law enforcement training event, and the consensus to all of the abovementioned questions was – and is – yes. 

It comes down to this: Are officers putting themselves in greater peril because of the scrutiny brought about by Ferguson? Are the long-term ramifications of Ferguson – and events like it – a deadly degradation in an officer’s willingness to use reasonable and justifiable force necessary to subdue an attacking subject for fear of what fate may befall them thereafter? 

Sadly, again, yes.

The current climate in the press and the public may be making our officers – whether consciously or unconsciously – more fearful of life after the deadly-force encounter than losing their life in the deadly-force encounter itself. 

Have some politicians and press so severely hijacked the narrative of police shootings that no matter what, a cop who has to defend himself or another — against fear of death or great bodily harm — will think not of the deadly threat before them in a gunfight, but think instead of being labeled a fascist or a racist (or some combination thereof) thereafter?

If the answer is ‘yes,’ then we have failed. And whether or not those thoughts went through Officer Kidder’s mind during his recent encounter, the answer for many cops, is yes. 

Looking to (and Learning from) History

Perhaps now is a good time to review the videotape in which Laurens County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Dinkheller was gunned down by a motorist at a traffic stop on a quiet country afternoon. 

Dinkheller was not as burdened with today’s “gotcha-video technology” or “first-person journalism” but he was so hesitant to squeeze the trigger on his firearm, he died at the hands of a deranged killer.

Dinkheller politely pleaded with his attacker to drop the weapon – “Sir, drop the gun now!” – and in the end, Dinkheller was killed because of his restraint. 

The confrontation between Kidder and Wilcox isn’t exactly comparable to that of Dinkheller, but Dinkheller absolutely had the reasonable right to open fire until the threat was ended and he could go home safely to his loved ones.

But he didn’t. 

He died on that roadside. 

When the cop-killer was finally put to death – just a few months ago, and a full 17 years after murdering Trooper Dinkheller – the Washington Post framed the event within the following headline: 

“Vietnam veteran Andrew Brannan executed for murder after PTSD defense fails”

The article went on to say that Brannan “lost his temper … after driving 100 mph on a country road and getting pulled over by the officer.”

The headline should simply have read:

“Cop killer executed by lethal injection”

This is one clear example of media failing to help citizens understand policing. 

Attendees at ILEETA agreed that the Dinkheller dash-cam video teaches us clearly and completely that being “officer friendly” while in contact with a violent offender can result in death for that officer. That lesson was paid in blood, and to ignore it is to disrespect Dinkheller in the worst way conceivable. 

Police officers’ actions in deadly-force incidents are almost universally exemplary. Any agency that allows its officers to wander down the dark tunnel of pre-incident self-doubt about what’s going to happen after a deadly-force incident is allowing the naive – and often willfully ignorant – press and public to dominate your training about justifiable police use of force. 

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