“I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6” was used in police organizations and advanced officer schools for decades. The “officer safety” proverb encouraged quickly identifying deadly threats and beating the bad guy to the draw in order to avoid death. The glib counsel concludes that lawsuits are inevitable, yet not fatal.
But things have changed!
In the past, when police officers were involved in on duty fatal encounters, the remedy for questionable decisions were civil action or wrongful death lawsuits. While they’re still in play, more and more officers are getting convicted in criminal court for their debatable, split second decisions.
Today I compiled a news story about the latest example of an officer getting convicted for an on duty shooting. Montgomery, Ala. police officer Aaron Cody Smith was charged with murder in the shooting death of Gregory Gunn. However, after a three day trial and a few hours of deliberation, the jury convicted the officer of manslaughter.
Smith, who had been on paid leave since the 2016 shooting, immediately resigned and was remanded to custody. While he has yet to be sentenced, the aggressive prosecutor will seek 20 years for the now former officer.
The following excerpt is from Law Officer’s article providing a brief overview:
Smith shot Gunn, 58, as he was walking home late at night. The officer had called Gunn over for a conversation, at which point he fled.
Defense lawyers said that Smith fired the weapon in self-defense because Gunn was grabbing a painter’s pole from a porch. However, prosecutors maintained that Gunn was never a threat to the officer.
The shooting sparked protests across Alabama’s capital city and “Justice for Gregg Gunn” signs dotted yards in the neighborhood where he was killed. Friends said Gunn was walking home from a weekly card game to the house he shared with his mother when Smith stopped him.
Smith claimed that he’d been told to “stop everything that moves” in his district, due to a rash of burglaries in the area. He said he stopped Gunn because he believed he matched the description of a suspect wanted for property crimes.
Smith added that while he was patting down Gunn, he felt a hard object he believed to be a weapon and Gunn, who had cocaine in his system, swatted away his hand. He said Gunn ran, ignoring Smith’s command to stop. Smith then deployed a Taser and police baton, to no avail. When the pair arrived at a front porch, Smith said Gunn grabbed a paint pole at which time he fired his weapon.
“I had to stop him,” Smith said. “If he’s brave enough to kill a uniformed police officer — if he takes me out he’s got access to all my weapons on my belt, a running police Tahoe down the street with an AR-15 inside.”
Regardless of what the naysayers purport, I’m confident that Smith didn’t go to work on that given day seeking to kill a black man. Moreover, had Gunn cooperated with Smith, none of this would have occurred.
There is no other line of work that leads to such harsh penalties for deficiencies, perceived or real, than law enforcement. I wish I had some good news to sum it up, but I don’t.
Cops on the street know all too well how incredibly difficult the job is. Furthermore, they are fervently aware of the risks they accept if they are a little slow to react to danger; it could mean death. And they are quite sober regarding the realities of being too quick on the draw or perceiving an elevated threat that isn’t seen the same way in the sterile environment of a courtroom; it could mean criminal conviction.
It’s a split second decision that determines your fate as seen in this recent Tulsa shooting.
The decedent in Tulsa’s shooting bladed his body as he reached for a concealed firearm. Fortunately, officers made the right call. But what if the suspect foolishly did the same thing while reaching for something other than a weapon and got shot? Would these officers be next in line for prosecution? It happens.
Consequently, the old adage needs amending: “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6, but going to prison sucks.” There are several incarcerated former officers who’d concur.
Finally, to those preparing to send hate mail on behalf of Gregory Gunn or anyone else who lost his life at the hands of law enforcement, save yourself the effort. Gunn was the ultimate cause of his death. He failed to comply with Smith’s orders and fled. Smith’s reaction is the proximate cause of Gunn’s demise. I am not making a case to exonerate Smith, but simply saying his actions, no matter how questionable, would have been unnecessary had Gunn complied.
– Jim McNeff
Jim worked in military and civilian law enforcement for thirty-one years. While in the USAF he flew as a crewmember aboard the National Emergency Airborne Command Post—a presidential support detail. Following his military service, he served for twenty-eight years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California where he retired as a lieutenant. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the prestigious Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the IACP course, Leadership in Police Organizations.