Abracadabra: Now you see it, now you don’t

magical incantation justifying use of excessive deadly force by police
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“Abracadabra.” There was once a time when this mystical word was used as part of a magical incantation to ward off trouble, sickness or harm.  It is widely used by magicians of every persuasion in the act of making something appear or dramatically disappear.  In recent years, however, it has become a part of the everyday vocabulary of police every where when they knowingly kill unarmed people of every color.

In police vernacular, the word “abracadabra” is rendered:  “I was in fear for my life.”  When this magical incantation is spoken, unlawful killings miraculously disappear, and justifiable homicides suddenly appear in their place.

It doesn’t work for everyone.  If you don’t wear a uniform and a badge, simply reciting the magical phrase likely won’t work for you.  Greg Ellifritz, President and Primary Instructor for Active Response, a central Ohio tactical agency responsible for developing and instructing the in-service training for a 54-officer police department, said:

“I’m in fear for my life” is a curious phrase. . . . Telling someone that you are in fear for your life is simply not the same as BEING in fear for your life.  It’s not a shortcut to provide some sort of instant justification for shooting someone.”

It’s different for police.  Both judges and juries tend to accept much less than Ellifritz suggests is necessary to establish a basis for “real” fear. It seems to have a hypnotic effect upon decision-makers and renders them unable to think clearly or rationally about the most obvious of facts.

Cleveland police Officer Michael Brelo jumped up on the hood of a crashed car and shot the unarmed black occupants 15 times just after other officers had riddled it with nearly 100 rounds. Once a perceived threat has ended, ordinary citizens would have a hard time justifying the use of deadly force.  But Brelo was a cop.  So, after a trial, a judge ruled back in May of this year that, partly because Brelo “reasonably” believed he was [still?] in danger, he was not guilty of a crime.

Looking back over the years at the ever-increasing number of police killings of unarmed civilians, one sees clearly that only a very, very few of the shooters end up in jail.  On the rare occasions that they have to face trial– police officers’ use of the magical phrase generally guarantees that their explanations of “fear” will be accepted and that they will be allowed to go free.

Betty Shelby, the Tulsa cop who shot unarmed Terence Crutcher, was acquitted after a week-long trial.  She testified– expectedly– that she was in fear for her life.  She claimed he was reaching into his car’s open window– she thought to retrieve a weapon– when she fired at him.  Even though another officer standing next to her had unholstered his Taser, Shelby was in so much “fear” she thought a bullet was a better choice.  Although there was no weapon of any kind in Crutcher’s car, the magical incantation worked yet again, and the jury ultimately set her free.

Shelby’s husband happened to be in a helicopter shooting video of the moments before Crutcher was killed.  He described Crutcher, who at the time was walking slowly to his car with his hands in the air, as a “bad dude.”

Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in the streets, called the 6’4″, 300-lb Brown a “demon.

There is some evidence– a 2016 study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer — that when it comes to shooting civilians police shoot black suspects no more than they shoot white suspects.  But that same study found that police are more likely to stop blacks than whites, and when blacks are stopped, officers are more likely to draw their guns.  Police who draw their weapons are more likely to point it at someone who is black, and blacks are more likely to be handcuffed, thrown against a wall, or slammed to the ground.

The study only documents the reality of being black in America.  The overwhelming majority of blacks have either personally experienced or knows someone who has seen or experienced this racially-biased playout of police power at one time or another in their lives.

In October 2015, Kenan Ivery was convicted of killing Justin Winebrenneran an off-duty cop, in the Papa Don’s Pub in Akron the previous year.  Winebrenner was off duty with friends the night of the shooting. Ivery was asked to leave because he was making some of the female customers uncomfortable. Witnesses said he returned with a gun.  Ivery, who is black, said he had the gun on him all the time and returned to get the order of wings he had purchased.  He said Windbrenner and his friends surrounded him and that he was in fear for his life.  Once again the phase had no magical power, however, and Ivery was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Are there different standards applied to police and other citizens when it comes to the use of deadly force?  Absolutely.  Are the different standards necessary or justifiable?  To some extent.

Police are targets of violence simply because they are police.  They can never know if the person they are approaching is running from a serious crime and intent upon not being apprehended.  Police must be allowed to protect themselves even as we demand that they protect the rest of us, but we have a right to unbiased, non-discriminatory, reasoned use of force against persons only suspected of a crime.  And police should never be permitted to kill any unarmed person on a whim, hunch or unjustified “fear for their lives.”

The magical phrase is easily uttered, and once used by police officers as a defense in the killing of unarmed persons, must be subjected to the same level of scrutiny that would be applied if one ordinary citizen killed another.   You shouldn’t get a pass for an unjustified killing simply because your uniform is blue.  Juries are ultimately responsible, as are the judges who hand down sentences.  Racism, bigotry and hate must not be allowed safe harbor in the institutions we trust in to serve and protect us from harm.








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