On Wed. Nov. 21, Boston Police shot and killed 38-year-old Marquis Barker of Dorchester, a father of five who worked as a jail officer in the Suffolk County Sheriff's office for 18 years. Barker's wife told the Boston Globe she called police after she found him "rambling" and "foaming at the mouth." According to police statements, responding officers found him holding what appeared to be a firearm and saying, "Shoot me! Kill me!" Barker then stole a police cruiser and led officers on a half-mile chase through Mattapan before crashing the vehicle. Police fired on Barker when he refused to drop the weapon, which turned out to be a pellet gun. The actions of the officers have prompted concerns by Barker's family about use of force and led to an investigation by the Boston Police as to whether officers acted appropriately.
Police were justified
Last week, Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis summed up Barker's death when he pledged an investigation.
"This is a tragedy for all involved," Davis said in a statement.
Indeed, this situation evokes strong emotions for everyone, with his 18 years of service to the county and his role as a family man.
But if the investigation determines that the officers' statements are true, then they acted to the best of their abilities
BPD policy defines two main scenarioss when officers can use deadly force by their firearms. Both these situations require police to determine whether their lives or the lives of others are in danger and there is no other means to apprehend a felon.
"There is no less drastic means available to defend oneself or another from unlawful attack, which an officer has reasonable cause to believe could result in death or great bodily injury," part of the policy reads.
The officers had no time to determine Barker's mental health, or ponder whether his firearm was actually a pellet gun disguised as the real thing. Their intent was to protect the loss of further life. At the expense of one tragedy they may have prevented many more.
Barker's friends, family and co-workers have described him, in grieving statements to the Boston Globe, as a soft-spoken, loving father. But the officers who pursued and shot him also have to deal with Barker's death.
They have a lifetime of doubt and remorse about taking his life.
Bostonians must remember the police have to be pragmatic in extreme situations, when lives may hang on a split-second decision.
Barker's erratic behavior--including provoking officers, stealing a police cruiser and pointing a weapon-made his apprehension absolutely necessary. Even greater, though, was his potential to have killed or injured police officers or civilians.
The sad, after-the-fact realization that the weapon was little more than a pellet gun should not deter officers from preventing a larger calamity.
For the police, "to serve" is simply not enough. They must also, always, protect.
There's a better way
Occurrences like the Marquis Barker police shooting are less than new news. Barker's was the fifth fatal shooting by BPD officers since 2002, according to the Boston Globe. The shock and grief over the shooting is fresh, but the incident's regrettable plot points parallel many other events that have preceded it in Boston and beyond.
Police officers have the legal right to pull the trigger in scenarios of self-defense. Officers should not be reflexively vilified, however, for defending their communities, especially considering the lack of effective alternative weapons in their caches.
It is fatalistic to believe that effective law enforcement requires a "collateral" loss of human life.
This past Monday marks the year anniversary of the death of Sean Bell, who was killed by 50 NYPD-fired bullets following a bachelor party in Queens. Two officers were indicted on manslaughter charges. Outrage still stews in the New York City borough.
Happenings such as these should catalyze a dialogue about the image of our police forces. The delicate balance between benign guardian and hardened, authoritative soldier has wide-ranging social implications.
Immediate concern for crime deterrence should not cloud long-term concerns of police-community and government-community relations.
The Barker story is different from Bell's-the officers were clearly acting in self-defense-but this does not make the action they took any more desirable.
Police shot Barker multiple times, including a shot to the head. The BPD must constantly take steps to repair the citizen distrust and subversion that results from shootings like these.
Looking forward, police departments-particularly larger, influential ones like the BPD-must find substitute, non-lethal weapons to impede and temporarily disable perpetrators from attacking those around them.
With this improvement, police shooting deaths could be diminished, and families could be spared of infinite heartache over lives cut short.