We ought to condemn murder committed in plain sight. This should be an unremarkable observation, and usually is — except when the murderers wear badges.
When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officers David Guerra and Courtney Suggs shot and killed Ruben Galindo on September 6, 2017, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney immediately started spinning the facts to shield his officers from responsibility.
The day after the shooting, he said publicly that Guerra and Suggs saw Galindo’s hands at his waistband. Then, Putney said, Galindo raised one of his hands and the officers saw a handgun. So they fired.
Putney’s description sought to leave the impression of a man imminently poised to unleash potentially lethal violence.
We now know for certain, however, that this recitation of facts was false. We know this because a judge ordered the release of body-camera footage showing Galindo’s final moments of life.
The footage captures a murder.
There stood Galindo, just having slowly stepped out of his home, with his arms raised as officers shouted at him from about ten yards away.
Shots rang out mere seconds later, and Galindo crumpled to the ground.
Yes, Galindo held a gun in one hand. But he neither aimed it at officers nor moved aggressively toward them, and his hands were in the air. He didn’t engage in any so-called furtive movements that cops too easily and too often rely on to justify their state-sanctioned violence, the kind of movements Putney surely sought to suggest with his “waistband” remark the day after the shooting. No, there was none of that. Galindo just stood there. Until he was shot. Then he fell to the ground, dead.
His original description of the shooting exposed as untrue, Putney had to come up with something new, so he claimed the footage didn’t tell the whole story, a position the police never take when video supports their narrative of justified violence.
Even if we ignore the anomaly of this argument, and even if we accept the chief’s plea to treat the video as less than dispositive, the sight of a man killed while standing immobile with his hands in the air should, at the very least, create a rebuttable presumption that, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, the man’s killing was unjustified.
Putney never fully explained what, besides the video, we should consider when assessing culpability. Instead, he jumped to his real defense of the officers: It doesn’t matter what happened, or what the video shows, or whether the video tells the whole story. As Putney said, “I’m not going to second guess an officer’s use of lethal force.” In other words, the fact that the shooting occurred is the proof that the shooting was justified. It’s a perfect circle of impunity.
This statement, which articulates a standard for police conduct contrary to well-established constitutional norms requiring that cops’ use of force be objectively reasonable, necessarily sent a message to rank-and-file officers: “shoot first, justify later.” Putney later doubled down on not requiring his officers to behave reasonably, saying that mere possession of a gun justified an officer’s decision to kill the possessor. “A gun in an encounter is a game-changer,” Putney explained. “You are in possession of a gun that can kill our officers or someone else. Therefore, legally, you’re authorizing the use of lethal force.”
You needn’t be a true-believing member of the NRA to shudder at the idea that your possession of a gun, by itself, entitles the state to kill you, a notion that would transform our country into a virtual free-fire zone. (More than one-quarter of North Carolinians own guns, and about 40% of Americans live in households with guns.)
In the end, of course, Putney’s efforts to protect his cops were vindicated when District Attorney Andrew Murray cleared the officers of wrongdoing. And while Murray didn’t endorse the chief’s expansive vision of police immunity, he reached the same conclusion as Putney: when, just seconds after confronting him, the cops killed Ruben Galindo as he stood outside his home with his hands in the air, they committed no crime.
Just as Putney sent a message to his officers when he said he wouldn’t second-guess their decisions to kill, Murray’s charging decision sent a message: when you kill, we’ll look the other way, and we certainly won’t condemn any murders you commit. Your badge will protect you.
(This piece was originally published in late 2017. It is reproduced here as a preview of the kind of work to come.)