The Core Reason Cops Kill Unarmed People Is Not Race. It’s Law Enforcement’s Shoot-First Rules Of Engagement

The Solution To Keeping Police From Killing Unarmed Citizens Is Forcing Police Departments To Completely Replace Their Old Rules Of Engagement

By David Grace (

Betty Shelby

A few weeks ago Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby appeared on 60 Minutes and attempted to justify her September 16, 2016 killing of Terence Crutcher.

She said that she was justified in killing him because:

  • He repeatedly disobeyed her orders
  • He looked at her in a disturbing manner
  • His hands briefly disappeared from her sight.

She said that those three things entitled her to kill him.

A fair distillation of her remarks is: “I did nothing wrong. It’s his own fault. If he had only done what I told him he’d be alive today.”

I think she sincerely believed everything she said, which is the core of the problem.

What I Would Have Said To Betty Shelby

If I could have spoken to Betty Shelby I would have told her:

  • If someone told you that you were entitled to kill a man who disobeyed your orders to stop walking away from you, they lied to you.
  • If someone told you that you were entitled to kill a man whose actions frightened you, they lied to you.
  • If someone told you that you were entitled to kill a man whom you feared might possibly be reaching for a gun, they lied to you.

The Disconnect Between What Civilians Think And Police Officers Think

If you asked one-hundred random American adults: “Should a police officer be entitled to kill you if you disobey his orders and then do something that he finds suspicious?” pretty much all of them would say: “No.”

If you asked that same question to one-hundred uniformed officers, I think at least a majority of them would say “Yes.”

Do you see the problem?

In South Carolina, officer Michael Slager was charged with murder for fatally shooting a fleeing suspect.

In Chicago a police officer is currently charged with murder for fatally shooting a fleeing suspect.

What’s the common thread here?

Yes, the victims were black and the cops were white, but I think that the races of the parties could just as easily have been reversed with the same results.

I think the common element here is that the cops ordered the civilians to do or not to do something, the civilians repeatedly ignored the cops’ orders, and then the civilians tried to flee.

In the officers’ minds, those facts entitled the officers to kill them.

The bottom line here, I think, is that many uniformed officers think they have a license to kill people who materially disobey their orders and either attempt to flee or do something that the officer thinks might present a risk to them.

They think they have a right to shoot first if they feel threatened.

Back to Betty Shelby — Shooting To Wound Instead Of To Kill

When asked why she didn’t shoot Mr. Crutcher in a non-fatal area, her answer was, “We’re not trained for that.”

She wasn’t saying that she was unable to aim at or hit a nonfatal area. All police officers are trained to accurately aim and fire their weapons.

No, she was saying that officers are trained to kill, not to wound, and that she followed her training and shot to kill instead of to wound, that she was following orders so what she did was OK.

If you asked one-hundred random American adults: “Should police officers immediately shoot to kill or first try to wound?” I think an overwhelming majority of citizens would say, “Shoot to wound if they can.”

If you posed that same question to one-hundred uniformed officers, I think at least a majority of them would say: “Shoot to kill.”

Do you see the problem?

We could repeat this process with questions about firing a warning shot, using a baton instead of a gun on a suspect who had only a knife, shooting once or emptying the clip, and the results would be the same.

A majority of the civilians would say: If reasonable, fire a warning shot; Use your baton instead of the gun when all he has is a knife, and shoot once and see if the man stays down, while a majority of the police would say: No warning shot; Use the gun not the baton, and Empty the clip.

Is it any wonder that many civilians feel that many police officers are trigger-happy killers and many police feel that they are under attack from civilians who don’t understand how they are trained to do their job?

Either The Public Needs To Change Or Police Officers Need To Change

Either the public has to accept the police officers’ current shoot-to-kill Rules Of Engagement or the police have to be retrained to accept what the public thinks are proper Rules Of Engagement.

So long as the police think that they have a license to kill people whenever they feel threatened and the public thinks they don’t, this mess is only going to get worse.

If you want “fix” things you have two choices:

  • Convince the general public that a police officer should be able to shoot to kill anyone who repeatedly disobeys his instructions and who also does something that makes the officer nervous,


  • Elect a mayor, a city council, a board of supervisors or a state legislature that will force all police officers to be retrained to abide by different Rules Of Engagement:

My Suggested New Rules Of Engagement

  • You cannot shoot a fleeing suspect
  • You cannot shoot a suspect who does not have a firearm unless a reasonable person would believe that he presents an immanent, serious danger to your or another person’s life
  • If at all reasonably possible, you must fire a warning shot before shooting the suspect
  • If you must shoot, if reasonably possible you must try to fire one shot in a non-fatal area and wait to see if that stops the suspect
  • If you must shoot more than once, stop shooting as soon as a reasonable person would believe that the suspect is no longer an immanent, serious threat.

Race Is Not The Prime Motivation

Many people think that these police killings are primarily racially motivated. I think they are primarily Rules Of Engagement motivated and only racially exacerbated.

I think that a white officer will often see a large black man as

  • more likely to be a “bad guy” than a large white man.
  • more dangerous than a large white man.

I think that a white officer will often be

  • less reluctant to kill a black person because he will have less empathy for black person because he is “not one of us.”

But, I also think that a police officer who is willing to fire five bullets into the back of a black man who’s running away from him will also not hesitate to shoot a white person too.

Put another way, I think 90% of the reason that uniformed officers kill unarmed citizens stems from the Rules Of Engagement they are trained to follow and 10% is based on the officers being white and the victims being black.

Blaming This Primarily On Race Makes The Problem Unsolvable

Laying this on race is a trap and a surrender to ever fixing the problem.

If this is all about race what’s the solution? Somehow make cops less hostile to or less afraid of black people? How are you going to do that? Sensitivity training? I don’t think so.

If race is really the problem here then there is no effective near-term solution. You may as well give up and accept the continuation of these deaths.

If race is at the root of the problem then you’ve essentially decided that the problem cannot be fixed any time in the next ten or twenty years.

I don’t think race is at the core of the problem. I think that the existing Rules Of Engagement are at the heart of the problem, and the Rules Of Engagement CAN be fixed.

Marches and protests and Black Lives Matter slogans are all aiming at the wrong target. They divert attention from the only strategy that will actually work — changing how police officers are trained.

The Solution Is Electing Politicians Who Will Force A Change In The Rules Of Engagement

If you want these killings to stop, you have to stop having marches, stop talking about race, stop making this a racial issue, and instead create a long-term, grass-roots, political campaign to elect new public officials who will force and require police departments to discard the old Rules Of Engagement and adopt new Rules Of Engagement along the lines of those listed above.

If you don’t do that, all the marches in the world will change nothing.

If you do change the Rules Of Engagement, the killings will drastically decline.

–David Grace (

To see a searchable list of all David Grace’s columns in chronological order, CLICK HERE

To see a list of David Grace’s columns sorted by topic/subject matter, CLICK HERE.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store