The North Miami police officer who on Monday shot Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black man lying on his back with his hands up, was actually trying to protect him, John Rivera, head of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association said on Wednesday. According to the union leader’s account of the shooting, the as-yet-unidentified officer mistakenly believed that the autistic man whom Kinsey was taking care of in his capacity as a behavioral therapist was armed with a gun. The officer was intending to use lethal force against him, not Kinsey, Rivera clarified.
Of course, as anyone who has watched the video of the moments leading up to the thankfully nonfatal shooting knows, Kinsey’s patient was not armed but rather was playing with a toy truck—a fact Kinsey tried to communicate to the officers on the scene by shouting, “All he has is a toy truck in his hand. That’s all it is. There is no need for guns.”
At a press conference Thursday, Rivera said the officer who shot Kinsey thought that he “was about to be killed.” Perhaps in an effort to strip away the racial dimensions of the shooting—the third high-profile police shooting of a black man this month—he made a point of identifying Kinsey’s patient as white.
“It appeared to the officers that the white male was trying to do harm to Mr. Kinsey,” Rivera said, according to the Miami New Times. “The officers, realizing and believing that there was a firearm—many officers thought the white male had a firearm. Only much later, when we’re able to ‘Monday-morning quarterback,’ do we find out that it’s a toy.”
Assuming it’s transcribed correctly, that turn of phrase, “realizing and believing,” is a telling one. According to the legal standard that state prosecutors typically apply when determining whether or not a police officer is justified in using lethal force, it doesn’t actually matter whether an officer has realized or merely believed that a suspect has a gun. According to Graham v. Connor, a Supreme Court decision from 1989 that is often invoked after high-profile police shootings, “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
This line of thinking makes a certain amount of sense: Police officers have dangerous jobs that require quick thinking and often involve fast-moving, unpredictable events. Too often, however, it’s allowed officers who have too quickly or blithely resorted to lethal force to go unpunished. In this instance, a police union leader is defending a police officer on the grounds that he was trying to shoot a disabled man playing with a toy truck. The fact that this characterization of the incident arguably makes it legal is exactly the problem.