The introduction for the New York Times‘ coverage of a police shooting in the commercially decadent hub of New York known as Times Square is the following, “When the tourists and shoppers thronging Times Square on Saturday afternoon first saw the police officers, guns drawn, confronting a knife-wielding man, many thought they had stumbled onto a movie set.” The scene, however, ended with shots being fired that killed a man who had been chased for around seven blocks. So, Times writers add, “It was quickly apparent this was no celluloid fantasy.”
Assuming that the writers did not just frame this story with such a flourish because they themselves could hardly believe that real-life violence was playing out in Times Square, there are ever so many films or shows that take the time to show the stealth and skills of our boys in blue. There are at least two hundred films shot in New York City every year now. There are around twenty primetime television shows shot in the city too so those in Times Square should be forgiven for mistaking this at first for a glimpse at a scene they would see in a coming attraction. But there are also close to one hundred instances where police “discharge” their “firearms” or shoot at those they feel pose a threat each year.
This would not be “celluloid fantasy” but nightmare reality to residents of The Bronx, which is the New York borough with the “lowest per capita income of the five” and has a “population that is 90 percent people of color.” As Don Lash wrote for the Socialist Worker, after two young black men, Jateik Reed and Ramarley Graham, were gunned down by police, “These incidents are part of a pattern of routine harassment and abuse, punctuated by regular episodes of brutality…To Bronx residents, the police resemble an occupying army.”
Watching cell phone video of the shooting, it looks like a military exercise. NYPD might as well be clearing a crowded market in Baghdad. Multiple police chase the man for blocks. They pepper-spray the man, TJ Hooker, an 51-year-old African-American man, six times, but he does not drop the knife. And, as the action reaches its climax, it is plain to see that all the man has is a “kitchen knife” yet the police fire multiple bullets. Is there not police academy training where multiple police would learn how to go in and disarm a man who is wielding a utensil of mass destruction?
The question is one of pure curiosity. The police, in this scenario, would never be found guilty in court. The “legal standard” and “Department’s expectation,” according to an NYPD report on firearms discharge statistics from 2010, is that officers be in a situation where it is “reasonable” to fire a weapon before firing a weapon. “Police officers shall not use deadly physical force against another person unless they have probable cause to believe they must protect themselves or another person present from imminent death or serious physical injury,” the standard reads. Those who “write and interpret the law” appreciate the risks police might face, the report claims.
“In Brown v.United States, 256 U.S. 335 (1921), Justice Holmes noted that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife,” the report notes, a legal citation that the NYPD could easily use to excuse what unfolded yesterday afternoon. In People v. Benjamin, “the New York courts found, “It would, indeed, be absurd to suggest that a police officer has to await the glint of steel before he can act to preserve his safety.” There is wide latitude for the protection of what officers like to call the “common good” through the use of force.
Paul Browne, the official spokesperson for the NYPD, told the press, “Two officers initially approached the man because he appeared to be smoking marijuana. When the officers tried to arrest the man, he stuck a marijuana cigarette in his pocket, raised the knife over his head and started to put on a blue bandanna.” So, not only is this another incident of police violence in New York, but it was another melee in the War on Drugs.
It is illegal to smoke marijuana in public in New York so the police would not be doing anything inappropriate by approaching the man. However, assuming that he was really smoking a marijuana cigarette and that is not what the NYPD is saying because it is one of the few things they could say to make the shooting seem “reasonable,” the man posed no threat to anyone until he was approached by police. The raising of a knife and putting on of a bandanna signifies a fear of police, which may have stemmed from the fact that he had been arrested for marijuana possession seven times before. He could have had a mental illness. He was taken to Bellevue hospital for observation once before because he was knocking down garbage cans in Times Square. He also could have had other drugs in his blood at the moment.
The marijuana could have been directly causing the paranoia. Shouldn’t officers have been prepared for sudden movements in a crowded area? Should we be asking what if the man had pulled out a gun instead of a knife? Or, maybe, we should be surprised the police did not shoot him sooner because, who knows what he was about to pull out? After all, the Times reported in 2008, “In 77 percent of all shootings since 1998 when civilians were the targets, police officers were not fired upon, although in some of those cases, the suspects were acting violently: displaying a gun or pointing it at officers, firing at civilians, stabbing or beating someone or hitting officers with autos, the police said. No one fired at officers in two notable cases — the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo and the 2006 shooting of Sean Bell.”
Back to the suggestion that tourists in Times Square thought this was a movie production, film director Peter Bogdanovich said after the shooting at a screening of Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, “There’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible.” He said, “It’s too easy to show murders in movies now. There are too many of them, and it’s too easy. There is a general lack of respect for life, because it’s so easy to just kill people.”
A possible explanation for why the reaction of some Americans to this action would be more voyeuristic than fearful? A statement that might help one understand why cell phone cameras would come out and people would begin to wonder if they had just become unwitting extras in an upcoming blockbuster? [Note: Again, police violated the public’s right to record and confiscated someone’s phone who had captured video of the violence.]
Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1968 in an essay on violence in film, which has a troubling resonance today, “I have no way of knowing whether violence is more common in films today, but it seems to have become more explicit and brutal. Even more disturbing is the new attitude toward violence in many films. No longer is violence exclusively a force of evil. Now it is tolerated as a means toward good ends as well.”
The gunning down of a man in Times Square by police, for witnesses, may be just that kind of violence—violence toward good ends. The Times writers suggest the episode people saw seemed legitimate, not out-of-place. Had a film production been unfolding, there would have been no shock that Hollywood has become so good at creating illusion for the screen. People would have resumed shopping and there would be no story to write.