U.S. Marshal Shooting in Memphis a Reminder of the Importance of Facts in the Public Conversation about Police Shootings

Much of the debate around shootings involving law enforcement officers continues to be free of facts or even an acknowledgement that facts matter. Take for example the recent shooting by a United States Marshal in Memphis, Tennessee. Immediately after the incident took place and well before any of the facts of circumstances were known, some members of the community took to the streets to riot.

Convinced that some grave injustice had been done by police, crowds began physically attacking Memphis Police Officer and Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputies. Neither of those agencies were involved in the actual shooting incident, of course. That didn’t matter to rioters. It also didn’t matter that the individual shot, Brandon Webber, was wanted for June 3rd Shooting and Robbery in Mississippi. Webber had responded to an ad for a car for sale. Then, after test driving the car, he shot the owner multiple times and fled with the car.

Then, on June 12th, when U.S. Marshals closed in on him in Memphis, he began ramming their cars with the car he had taken from the man he shot. He then stepped out of the vehicle with a weapon in his hand. It was only then that he was shot by a U.S. Marshal. These are facts. But for many in Memphis the facts simply didn’t matter. It was more important to have a riot to vent all manner of grievances and frustration. So riot they did. They threw rocks and bricks at police, which resulted in about 36 officers being injured.

It wasn’t just community members lashing out. Even elected “leaders” began spreading their inaccurate and incendiary beliefs about the shooting. Current Shelby County Councilwoman and Memphis mayoral candidate, Tami Sawyer, tweeted: “How many times will this be ok?…it cannot continue to be.”

Public discourse about policing practices, including the use of deadly force by officers, is critical to continuous improvement of policing. But when large numbers of participants in this important conversation reflexively condemn law enforcement, whether they know what happened or not, we are not getting better, we are getting more polarized.