Handgun stripped
Credit: Hrd10/Wikimedia Commons

On January 16 2016 in Mesa, Arizona, an unarmed innocent man named Daniel Shaver was murdered without cause by a police officer after begging for his life on his knees in a hotel hallway. On December 8th of this year Philip Brailsford, the officer who murdered him, was acquitted.

If you have the stomach for it, watch the video. It’s important.

While most needless police killings tend to be byproducts of institutional racism, this one was not. Daniel Shaver was a white man. His killer was a white man as well. So why did this happen?

Let’s start with the reason the cops were called to the scene in the first place. Not surprisingly, it was an alert over a firearm:

Mr Shaver was confronted by police responding to a report of a man pointing a gun out of his hotel room window in January 2016.

The police report said he showed guests in his hotel room a rifle he used for work, killing birds.

It later emerged that the rifle was an airsoft or pellet gun, rather than a genuine firearm.

Other hotel guests were alarmed by what they perceived to be a man wielding a firearm in a hotel window. That stands to reason. Recent events in Las Vegas, if nothing else, should demonstrate the wisdom of a “if you see something, say something” attitude toward rifles in hotel windows.

So when police arrived, they had reason to suspect they might be confronting a potentially dangerous man with a gun.

In most other industrialized nations, the police are usually unarmed. That’s because most suspects are unarmed, and therefore most encounters don’t carry the danger of lethal force on either side. In the United States, the proliferation of guns in the hands of civilians means that it would be unreasonable to disarm police officers. It’s a literal arms race in which cops are trained to be afraid that even a moment’s hesitation could result in their death.

But that doesn’t make police blameless. The officer’s defense team argued that he should be acquitted because he was poorly trained. That much is obvious. As even David French of the conservative National Review notes, soldiers in war zones are calmer and have less itchy trigger fingers than many police in this country. The officer should have felt in control of this situation even without his gun. Speaking of which, the officer’s gun was etched with the words “you’re f*cked,” which should give a strong indication of both his frame of mind and his reason for wanting to have the gun in the first place.

Why was Brailsford acquitted? Because the jury didn’t get to see the video, or know about the inscription on the gun. And because juries tend to reflexively acquit police officers, particularly in cases where the victims are people of color, which turns a problem of awful violence into one of horrific institutional injustice compounded tenfold by the evils of institutionalized racism.

It seems obvious that men like former officer Brailsford should not have access to guns. It seems obvious that the gun gives power-tripping officers instant power of life or death over suspects that they should not have. It seems further obvious that whatever training is being given to police about gun is dangerous to public safety. And finally, it seems obvious that, while he certainly didn’t deserve to die, if men like Daniel Shaver weren’t casually waving even Airsoft guns around hotel windows, more American cops wouldn’t have to carry firearms at all.

Conservatives often say that the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. That night, the only bad guy with a gun was officer Brailsford. But the real bad guy? That would be the gun itself, and all the guns that lead to the insane situation in this country.

CORRECTION: The jury did get to see the video. Which makes the acquittal all the more amazing, and only makes it clearer just how big a problem we have in bringing justice to victims of police violence.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.