CHARLIE MITCHELL: It’s too easy to generalize about shootings by police



A problem with public outrage when citizens – especially young citizens – are shot and killed by police is that no two situations are alike. Or at least not exactly alike.

As the saying goes, any is too many. But there are differences. And they are important.

The St. Louis, Missouri, suburb of Ferguson has been wracked by protests, riots and looting since the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown during a confrontation with officers on the evening of Aug. 10.

Two mornings later in Mississippi, a Madison County deputy and a Canton police officer confronted 52-year-old Torrez Harris in a self-service laundry. Harris was shot and killed. No protest.

The reason for the calm in Canton is that while Brown and Harris were both black, that’s pretty much where the facts about their deaths end.

In the Missouri homicide, what happened is still not clear.

The situation in Canton was much more clear. Harris had apparently shot his stepdaughter, 29-year-old Melissa Primer, who later died, before fleeing down Peace Street. Sheriff Randy Tucker said the officers found Harris, still armed, and asked him to surrender, but that Harris responded adamantly that he was not going to jail.

“Officers tried to reason with the gentleman and get him to put his weapons down,” Tucker told a reporter. “He did not comply with those orders. He in turn raised his firearm at the officers, and unfortunately, the officers had to discharge their weapons and the suspect is deceased at this time.”

Just how many Americans are “deceased at this time” due to law enforcement actions is not clear.

Some, no doubt, see DOJ “coding” of police-involved homicide reports as intentional obfuscation – a cover-up, circling of the wagons, blue wall of silence kind of thing. A better view, however, is that what happens in the two minutes to two seconds before police kill somebody varies so much that compiling neat and clean lists is nigh unto impossible.

We can talk about trends. For instance, an important fact is that there is not an increase – “alarming” or otherwise – in police shootings.

More detailed information is available on officers killed. For 2012, the number is 48 as a result of felonious acts – plus another 47 in accidents, mostly vehicular accidents.

Ferguson is an almost 100 percent black residential area where the police force is almost all white. Like it or not, that spells tinderbox.

In Canton, Harris’ death fit the mold of “suicide by cop.” Officers might truly try to de-escalate, but people in a manic frame of mind sometimes don’t hesitate to take officers with them to the graveyard. Unlike in Missouri, the Mississippi officers were identified immediately.


A common question is that given the horrid rate of black on black crime, why are reactions so different when a shooter is white, as in Ferguson, and the deceased is black? The one-word answer is “history.”

Are there opportunists in Ferguson? Sure. But authorities in Ferguson invite judgment by failing to be forthright. They’re as blameworthy as a media horde who offer conclusions based on a preconceived script.

People don’t have to jump into groupthink. Every situation is tragic; every one is at least a little different. There should be sympathy for everyone involved.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Mitchell is assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi.

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