A Cop’s “Job”: Kill Without Cause or Consequences

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“What they decided … was that Officer Randall Kerrick did his job,” summarized his attorney, George Laughrun, after a grand jury in North Carolina refused to indict Kerrick for manslaughter in the death of Jonathan Ferrell. “Regretfully, it cost the life of Jonathan Ferrell. But he did his job.”

Some version of this formulaic response is uttered by cops, their superiors, or their attorneys anytime an officer is exonerated after an on-duty killing under dubious circumstances. In this case, the victim, an unarmed 24-year-old man with no criminal record, was shot ten times while he was asking the police for help.

At about 2:30 a.m. last September 14, Ferrell drove off an entrance road in a suburban neighborhood about 15 miles from Charlotte. (The coroner later found that his blood alcohol content was below the legal limit.) He went to a nearby home and knocked on the door in the hope of using a telephone. A woman inside the house, thinking that the large black man on her doorstep was trying to break into her home, called 911. After Kerrick and another officer responded, they found Ferrell walking on the street.

Rather than fleeing – as would be expected from a burglary suspect – Ferrell ran toward the officers, in the hope of enlisting their aid. The cops responded with lethal force – first shooting him with a Taser, and then opening fire. Kerrick fired twelve shots within the space of a few seconds, hitting the victim ten times. Ferrell died at the scene.

A few hours later, Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter and released on $50,000 bond. That decision provoked the passionate displeasure of police spokesman nation-wide.

“What [the decision to charge Kerrick] does is it shakes [the confidence of police officers] because, like it or not, most cops like to think their department has their back,” groused Randy Hagler, president of the North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police.

Chief Daniel Trelka of the Waterloo, Iowa Police Department insisted that charging Kerrick undermined the all-important principle of Officer Safety, thereby placing at risk the incomparably precious lives of law enforcement officers: “My concern is we’re going to have an officer – any officer someplace in the country – hesitate when they are justified in taking action and lose their life.”

From that perspective, police are justified in killing someone whose only “suspicious” act was to ask them for help.

“Police are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and police officers are no exception,” added James Pasco Jr., the national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). “You don’t check your civil rights at the station house door.”

Charging a police officer doesn’t negate the presumption of innocence. What Pasco may have in mind is a presumption of immunity. He likewise claims that in a police shooting “the most accurate information will come out over a period of time … 48 to 72 hours after the event.” He and other police “experts” criticized the decision to charge Merrick within 24 hours of the shooting, rather than allowing him an interval in which he could “decompress.”

This “cooling-off period” following a lethal force incident is one of the myriad privileges reserved for the punitive caste. If Kerrick had been a Mundane, the decision to file charges immediately would have been expected, rather than controversial. However, police who kill are generally granted a special dispensation in the form of the “cooling-off period” — and are are the beneficiaries of the “Garrity Rule.”

Adapted from the 1967 Supreme Court ruling Garrity v. New Jersey, the Garrity privilege is an enhancement of the right against self-incrimination: After an officer invokes that rule, any statements made thereafter can only be used for the purpose of a departmental investigation, not for criminal prosecution. This allows him time to huddle with police union attorneys in order to compose a suitably self-serving story that will conform to the undemanding requirements of investigators eager to exonerate the officer.

In the case of Officer Kerrick, the anxieties of police union officials proved to be unfounded. After a portion of the 18-member panel reviewed the case, the foreman handed the clerk of the court a handwritten note asking that the prosecutor “submit a bill of indictment to a lesser-included or related offense,” rather than voluntary manslaughter.

Kerrick’s attorney said that his client was “relieved that the grand jury members saw fit to keep an open mind and not listen to all the propaganda on all the things he did wrong.” A more plausible surmise is that the jurors, having been marinated in propaganda of the “uniforms that guard” variety (“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm,” and suchlike), had closed their minds to the possibility of holding a cop accountable to the laws everyone else must obey.

For those whose minds are not hostage to such assumptions, this case underscores the fact that the last person from whom we should seek help is someone clothed in the power of discretionary killing. Randall Kerrick’s “job,” according to his defense attorney, is to kill without hesitation, without legitimate cause, and without personal consequences. From the perspective of the State’s punitive caste and those who sustain them, the  unjustified death of a Mundane may be “regrettable,” but holding a police officer accountable for that crime would be unconscionable.

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