On November 4, 2013, Tyler Comstock, an unarmed nineteen year old, was shot and killed by an Ames, Iowa, police officer. The young man’s father called police, reporting that his son had stolen a pickup truck and trailer because the elder Comstock had refused to buy him some cigarettes. The police spotted the pickup, chased it, were rammed by the young driver, and continued the chase onto the Iowa State University campus where pedestrians were running for cover. The young driver of the truck rammed another police car, took off again, and eventually got stuck in a wooded area. When he would not shut off the engine or get out of the truck, but continued to spin the tires, the officer shot him. Since then, dozens of writers have piled on the police officer, complaining that the shooting appears to have been unnecessary. No one has speculated about who they would blame if the young man had managed to kill someone, or if he had escaped and then caused a fatal accident. And, I’m not here to judge whether the shooting was justified. I truly have mixed feelings. But I do think people are misdirecting their questions and judgments, and it would be much more appropriate to direct a little of our anger at the people who create these kinds of situations.
Call this an open letter to all those people who might ever be tempted to think society owes them one more free pass.
Dear Potential Victim of Police Oppression:
When the police car’s lights come on, your job is to stop, put your hands where they are immediately visible, like on the top of the steering wheel, and wait to be told what to do. Yes, you do have all the rights in the world, but your pride should be able to handle the challenge of taking orders from someone who has the legal power to order you around. If he truly is out of bounds, totally wrong, sue him tomorrow. In the meantime, do what you are told and live to see another day.
The police have the job of protecting the pubic, and most of them take that job very seriously. Yes, the policeman is supposed to be your friend, but not when you make yourself the aggressor and a danger to the public. When you make yourself a danger, or act like you intend to harm others, the officer’s job is to stop you. He is not your babysitter, he is not your 8th grade guidance counselor, he is not the social worker who wants to improve your lot in life. He is an armed representative of the law whose primary job is to protect himself and others by stopping you any way he can. If you have a gun, he has the responsibility to tell you to put it down. And if you refuse follow his orders, his job, harsh as it might sound, is to shoot you so that you can’t harm anyone else.
Maybe you don’t have a gun handy. If you are racing around town, knocking down whatever gets in your way, through pedestrians in your 5,000 pound truck/deadly weapon, he has the right to expect you to stop and get out of your vehicle. Possibly, someone else might later think of an alternate action that could have worked better, but the officer has only a second or two to arrive at a life or death decision to protect himself and others. Your life is obviously important, but when you have created this situation, your life is no longer the only important consideration. We also have to think about the rights of others, and I’m going to give the nod to the lives of the totally innocent around you. And I’m going to give my sympathy to the officer who didn’t ask you to put him in this difficult position. Justified or not, he will have to live with the tragic results of your actions. And so will his wife. And his children. And his parents. And his siblings. And the rest of our civilized society.
So, Potential Victim of Police Oppression, when told to stop, JUST STOP AND DO WHAT YOU ARE TOLD. IT’S SO SIMPLE.