There’s a depressing story in the Washington Post this week, written by author and activist Ben Faulding. Faulding is black and was recently shopping for hair conditioning products in a local store when he had an unexpected encounter with the police. While wearing headphones with the music up so loud that he couldn’t hear much going on around him, the shopper was suddenly facing a couple of cops with their guns drawn who were shouting instructions at him.

Long story short, Faulding finally dropped the bottle of conditioner in his hand and wound up face down on the floor in handcuffs. But up until that moment, he was wondering if he was about to be shot because he couldn’t hear the officers’ instructions. After a brief investigation, he was released with no charges filed. He compares his experience as nearly winding up like that of Daniel Shaver, who was shot by the police when he failed to fully follow commands he couldn’t understand.

Now comes his complaint. The cops were, by all accounts, doing everything “by the book” during that encounter. But is “the book” flawed if it could result in an innocent person being killed?

So, there I was, with the NCPD officers ordering me to do something pretty similar. In the moment, I kept yelling that I had headphones on and couldn’t hear them clearly. Somehow, eventually, I was handcuffed, face down on the shop carpet and one of the officers took off my headphones. I couldn’t really move at that point, but at least I could hear instructions and follow them.

And in kind of sickening way, that was the first moment I felt some level of being safe.

I’m no different from Shaver, no more deserving, no smarter. I just ran into a less trigger-happy officer than he did, and I lived. I hadn’t broken any laws, so no charges were filed.

If that was the entirety of the story you’d certainly have even more sympathy for Faulding. I’m sure it was a terrifying experience and if he’d been killed under those circumstances it would have been a tragedy. But would that mean the cops were failing in their duty? To understand that part you need to know the rest of the story. A clerk in the store had suspected Faulding of being a shoplifter (at a minimum). The author had been carrying a duffel bag of some sort through the store and knocked down some products in one aisle. The clerk didn’t know if she’d seen a weapon but had apparently placed a call to the cops reporting a possible armed robbery in progress which was what drew them to the store.

So when the police arrived, they were basing their actions on information indicating that a potentially armed individual was in the store committing a crime. With all that in mind, they were indeed going “by the book” as Faulding says, but absent some amazing mindreading abilities, what were the other options?

The author clearly seems to think it could have been handled differently. Perhaps the cops could have taken a more friendly approach, strolling up to him without their weapons drawn and simply asking him to remove his headphones and let them have a look in his bag. In this case that might have worked. But how were the police to know? Before you answer that question, consider what happened to a different set of cops who responded to a similar call from a clerk about armed robbery suspects in a store in Baltimore.

A quick glance at this video will show you the result.

Police say they were focused on the store after it was robbed on Friday. Officers were on the scene within minutes, and came face-to-face with men who police say “did not have a care in the world.”

The masked crooks and officers were locked in a heated gun battle, with a barrage of bullets inside the store and along North Charles St.

“It’s an absolute blessing we don’t have officers shot,” Smith said.

In that case, the police showed up and the suspects immediately drew weapons and opened fire without saying a word. The gun battle continued through the store and then outside. As one officer in the report said, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they didn’t wind up with dead cops on the floor of that store.

So yes, police officers need to go “by the book” and do their best to never make a mistake. But simply because the police show up at the scene of a reported crime in progress with their weapons drawn does not make them “trigger happy” as Faulding describes them. Sometimes it’s the only way they can stay alive and protect the lives of all the innocent civilians at the scene.

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