Lincoln * Institute

Colin A. Hanna

Colin A. Hanna

Let Freedom Ring, USA


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Let Freedom Ring

To Understand Police Shootings, Look for Motive

by Colin Hanna

It was former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who once famously said, "…never let a serious crisis go to waste." Many people don't know that he was actually parroting a phrase from radical leftist Saul Alinsky. It's about as cynical a phrase as any social or political scientist can imagine. Its main point is that crises, tragedies and disasters can be good, because they allow governments to do things that they'd never get away with under normal circumstances, when ordinary people are absorbed and distracted by the catastrophe at hand. President Obama is a student of Saul Alinsky, so it should be no surprise that he is doing precisely that with regard to the three separate shooting incidents that have rocked our nation in the past week.

He's using all three — the two black men who were shot by police in Baton Rouge and a suburb of St. Paul, and the five white policemen who were assassinated by a sniper in Dallas — to push his agenda for gun control and federalizing police training. It's dishonest, shameful and divisive. A real leader would try to bring people together, rather than exploit the tragedies for political and ideological gain.

Let's try to take a logical and even-handed look at the three incidents to see what they share in common, and what may distinguish them from each other.

First, all three involve police officers. In St. Paul and Baton Rouge, the police were the shooters. In Dallas, they were the victims. In St. Paul and Baton Rouge, there was no extensive premeditation. The shootings took place in a highly-charged atmosphere of apprehension and confrontation. In Dallas, there was extensive premeditation. Shooter Micah Johnson told police that he wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers. Later investigation revealed that he was planning for an even wider assault on white police officers.

Two of the incidents were white on black — white police officers shooting and killing black suspects — while one was black on white, the dozen shootings in Dallas that resulted in five dead and seven wounded. There may have been racial undertones in the first two shootings. The officers may have been rougher in dealing with the two victims than they would have if they had been white. It's quite possible that the police used deadly force when some lesser weapons, such as stun guns, could have incapacitated the suspects. Thorough and professional investigations will try to determine that. But there's no evidence whatsoever that the police involved in either the Baton Rouge or St. Paul shootings were intentionally looking — or hunting, if you will — for black men to shoot.

The Dallas shootings were altogether different. Micah Johnson openly stated to police that he was out to shoot white people, especially white police. He shot twelve of them, five fatally. His assault was indisputably premeditated.

What is the single most important factor in rightly determining whether a death or deaths occurred as an accident, an aggravated accident, or cold-blooded murder? Any law enforcement officer, attorney or even a casual TV show viewer knows the answer — it's motive. Motive is the distinguishing factor between first and second degree murder and between murder and manslaughter. There are minor variations from state to state in the classification of murders by degree. Here's how one website distinguishes them.

First-degree murder is any intentional murder that is willful and premeditated.

Second-degree murder is an intentional murder, but it was not premeditated or planned in advance.

Voluntary manslaughter (sometimes referred to as third-degree murder), is any intentional killing that involves no prior intent to kill, and which was committed under such circumstances that would "cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed." Both this and second-degree murder are committed on the spot under a spur-of-the-moment choice, but the two differ in the magnitude of the circumstances surrounding the crime.

Involuntary manslaughter is a killing that stems from a lack of intention to cause death, but involves an intentional, or negligent, act leading to death. Note that the "unintentional" element here refers to the lack of intent to bring about the death. All three crimes above feature an intent to kill, whereas involuntary manslaughter is "unintentional", because the killer did not intend for a death to result from their otherwise intentional actions.

The Dallas shootings fit the definition of murder in the first degree. The St. Paul and Baton Rouge killings fit the definition of either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. The difference is motive. The incidents are wholly unalike — and must not be lumped together as similar examples of racism. Racism exists in our society, and is inherently evil. But racism as the premeditated and primary factor in the shooting of the twelve Dallas police is clear, while in St. Paul and Baton Rouge it was not. Let's have a national dialogue on each of these tragic shootings — but let's be honest about it by looking at the motive behind each one. The President has not been honest about it, because he has dodged the distinguishing factors of motive behind each killing.