This past Friday evening, 42-year-old Omar Gonzalez scaled the 9-foot-high iron fencing that surrounds the White House, dashed across the North Lawn, and made it through the unlocked doors of the North Portico before finally being apprehended by the Secret Service. While much of the White House security protocol is (understandably) classified, it’s safe to assume that things didn’t go according to plan. As Marc Ambinder put it in Politico Magazine: “Under no circumstances should anyone be able to vault over the fence and run, unimpeded, into the residence.”
I have no quibbles with that conclusion, and neither does the Secret Service. The agency’s director, Julia Pierson, has ordered an internal review, and at least one painfully obvious fix has already been implemented: The White House will now lock its front door. More reforms will likely follow, especially given that Pierson will be hauled before Congress next week to explain the high-profile breach. But before that happens, it’s worth pausing for a second to acknowledge something the Secret Service got right amidst all they did wrong: not a single shot was fired. Gonzalez, an Iraq war veteran who is likely mentally ill, is still alive.
As I argued during this summer’s unrest in Ferguson, officers too often shoot first and ask questions later, if they ask them at all. Far too often, the police and the media alike will shrug their shoulders and declare a shooting to be justified without considering whether it was avoidable. Drawing that distinction is crucial. It forces us to remember that even in the most fraught circumstances, police officers and federal agents don’t have to fire their weapons simply because they can. Gonzalez’s run across the White House lawn is proof of that.
The Secret Service’s show of restraint is all the more praiseworthy because it stands in stark contrast to a number of recent questionable police shootings. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson has drawn the most attention, but the Missouri teen’s death was far from an isolated incident. Later that same month, St. Louis police shot and killed a 25-year-old black man, Kajieme Powell, who was acting erratically outside a convenience store. The following week, in the parking lot of a hardware store in Ottawa, Kansas, officers shot and killed a white 18-year-old, Joseph Jennings, who had recently been treated at a nearby hospital for an apparent suicide attempt. That same month police shot and killed a 22-year-old black man, John Crawford III, who was holding an air rifle inside an Ohio Walmart. And just three weeks ago, a South Carolina officer opened fire on a 25-year-old black man, Levar Jones, who was reaching for his license as instructed by police. Each case is different, but all should leave us wondering what would have happened if the officers held their fire.
This isn’t just a problem at the local level. A New York Times investigation revealed last year that FBI agents fatally shot about 70 people between 1993 and early 2011. Every single episode was deemed justified by the bureau, despite the fact that some of those shootings were clearly avoidable. Consider the case of then-20-year-old Joseph Schultz, who was shot in the jaw in 2002 after an agent mistook him for a suspect in a bank robbery.
Every police shooting deserves to be put under a microscope. But if we’re going to do that, it’s only fair to point out when the authorities avoid killing a man when most everyone would have called it justifiable.
If an agent would have shot Gonzalez, it’s unlikely that decision would have been second-guessed—particularly given that, according to an affidavit filed by the Secret Service, he was carrying a knife with a 3½-inch serrated blade. The agents appear to have been unaware that Gonzalez had a knife, but it nonetheless would’ve been safe to assume in the moment that he posed a real danger. The man had breached the White House’s perimeter, after all.
Indeed, the agents’ decision not to shoot has been one of many Secret Service (in)actions to draw criticism. “In my mind, if somebody comes over the White House fence, and is running toward the White House, I just assume: shoot ’em, take ’em down,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, told a local news station. Ronald Kessler, writing in Time, came to a similar conclusion. “They were either asleep or just not paying attention when [Gonzalez] sprinted across the lawn,” the conservative journalist wrote, before concluding: “Having failed to unleash the dogs in time, the officers should have taken out the intruder with a bullet.” (The National Review, meanwhile, used the incident to offer their readers the helpful PSA that “you have the right to use violence to defend yourself and your property.”)
When you consider that pervasive shoot-first-then-keep-shooting mindset, the fact that agents held their fire is all the more laudable. The Secret Service is typically afforded more latitude to use deadly force than other branches of law enforcement, which makes sense given that they are protecting the country’s elected leader. (The gravity of their duty is implicit in the fact that we expect agents not only to take a life to protect the president but also to give theirs if necessary.) While President Obama had departed for Camp David before Gonzalez stepped foot in the White House, it would have taken just one of the many agents at the scene to decide that national security was at risk and that he had no other choice than to open fire. That’s one reason why nonshootings like this one are so remarkable. To take a life, only one officer needs to pull the trigger. To save a life, all of them must hold back.
You could argue that, in hindsight, the Secret Service should have been more concerned about Gonzalez. He had two earlier run-ins with the agency this summer, and the officers who searched his car following Friday’s incident found 800 rounds of ammunition, two hatchets, and a machete. But those troubling details must be set aside when we think about the agents’ collective decision not to shoot. The Secret Service’s show of restraint was a result of split-second decisions made with little available information.
What’s more relevant is the fact that Gonzalez appears to be suffering from PTSD-like symptoms. Secret Service agents say that after he was taken into custody, he told them he jumped the fence because “the atmosphere was collapsing and [he] needed to get the information to the President of the United States so that he could get the word out to the people.”
It’s unclear whether Secret Service agents are specifically trained to deal with the mentally ill. But Pierson’s comments earlier this week suggest that, if nothing else, they are at least conscious that a mentally ill suspect is likely to act differently than one who is not. “To be quite honest with you all, the vast majority of the people we come into contact with exhibit signs of mental illness,” the director explained to reporters.
According to Pierson, her agents deal with roughly 60 people a year outside the White House who appear to be potential threats, most of whom never attempt to breach the gates. But some do. Two days after Gonzalez was taken into custody, agents arrested a man who attempted to enter the White House both on foot and through a vehicle-screening area. And earlier this month, a man wearing a Pikachu hat and carrying a Pokémon doll jumped the White House’s north fence before being stopped by officers. Neither incident resulted in serious injury to the suspects or anyone else.
No two cases are the same, and I have never worn a police uniform, let alone been put in the incredibly difficult position of having to decide in a flash whether to shoot or hold my fire. But the bottom line remains that the Secret Service made the judgment call not to open fire, and if they had, the outcome would have been far worse. As the agency is questioned about its many failures, let’s also highlight what it did right. Friday’s events could serve as an important lesson to everyone in law enforcement: Just because a shooting is justified doesn’t mean it needs to happen.