A Different Kind of Police-Kill-Unarmed-Black-Youth Story

Brown and Cobb

Paterson Brown Jr. and David L. Cobb. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Chesterfield County has its own cop-shooting-and-killing-an-unarmed-black-youth story, but it has generated little controversy — presumably because the police officer was himself black, thus side-stepping the racist-white-cop narrative. It is instructive to read the account of court testimony in the policeman’s trial to get a sense of the ambiguous situations in which police find themselves forced to make life-and-death decisions.

Here are the basic facts based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s coverage of the trial: David L. Cobb, an off-duty, 47-year-old Chesterfield police officer, was getting his girlfriend’s car washed at the Better Vision Detail & Car Spa on Midlothian Turnpike when 18-year-old Paterson Brown Jr. inexplicably hopped into the vehicle. Cobb confronted Brown, struggling to open the door as Brown tried to close it. Observing that the teenager was acting strangely and incoherently, apparently from drug use, Cobb announced that he was a police officer and warned him four times to stay still. At one point, Brown leaned back and said, “I don’t f— with cops” but he did not comply. When Brown moved his left hand across his waist, Cobb believed that he was reaching for a gun. He shot the youth in the pelvis, severing a vital artery and killing him. As it turned out the youth was unarmed.

The prosecutor argued that Brown’s act of reaching across the waist “does not give you the right to use deadly force.”

But David Baugh, a black attorney who has represented five other Richmond-area officers in use-of-force killings, countered that every officer (1) is responsible for stopping a crime when he or she sees it, and (2) fears for his or her life when approaching a vehicle.

“He doesn’t have a right to walk away,” Baugh said. “He took an oath. It’s his moral duty to stick his nose in it.” To convict Cobb, he told the jury, prosecutors “have to convince you there’s no reason to be scared.” Brown set the tone with his bizzare behavior, glaring at Cobb after the officer spotted him inside the car. “Is he reasonable to be fearful? Yes. [Officers] all know.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Police officers have every reason to fear that young men acting strangely and actively resisting direct commands might pull out a gun and shoot. Forty-five law enforcement personnel, two of them in Virginia, have been killed in the line of duty so far this year. Cobb had to make a split-second decision. He made the wrong decision. Indeed, Cobb was so remorseful that he broke down sobbing while testifying in court and the judge had to suspend proceedings for ten minutes while he composed himself. But Cobb did not create the situation. Brown did. And, while his death was tragic and out of proportion to anything he did wrong, he brought it upon himself.

After a two-decade decline, violent crime is on the upswing. Ironically, most of it is black-on-black crime — a perverse result of the “Ferguson effect” in which police dial back their interventions and the Black Lives Matter movement which has encouraged black youths to distrust police and resist arrest. To revive a phrase from the 1960s, I’m on the side of “law and order.” If I were on Cobb’s jury, I would not vote to convict. And, if the T-D‘s account is fair summary of the facts presented, I’ll bet his jury won’t either.

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7 responses to “A Different Kind of Police-Kill-Unarmed-Black-Youth Story

  1. I agree with you, by removing the white-on-black element here, this case can be seen for what it is: law enforcement, a dangerous and risky calling in the best of circumstances.

    But that suggests, the ONLY way to carry out law enforcement today without unfair racially-motivated charges of misconduct being hurled is to assign black officers to black situations/neighborhoods and white to white, etc.

    Have we gone so far in our efforts to be politically and racially correct that we must re-segregate our interactions with one another to keep from crossing that line?

    • As to your question in last para, apparently, for some we do.

      This raises a series of related questions.

      How often is race injected into these situations when a black officer shoots and kills a white person in a similar set of circumstances?

      If there is a significant disparately in how race plays into the event and how judgements are made by all concerned with that event depending on the color of the police shooter, what does that tell us about those doing the judging?

      Given the inherent complexity, ambiguity, and emotional charge connected with these situations is it not essential of give the same benefit of doubt to the police officer irrespective of his color and/or the color of the deceased?

      And it we cannot do that then can or should we ask or require white policemen to enforce the law in Black neighborhoods?

  2. I don’t want to stir the pot unnecessarily here, but let me point out that this was not a law enforcement action. I haven’t followed this case at all and only know what I read in this article and the linked Times-Dispatch one. But, geez, it raises a number of questions. How did the kid get into the car in the first place? Was the car running? Did the off-duty officer (apparently in civvies, not his uniform) believe his girl friend’s car was about to be stolen? The deceased kid was clearly in the wrong, but was he so intoxicated he was unable to understand the situation? Why weren’t actual uniformed police called in? If the kid was so intoxicated, how could the armed off duty officer be fearful of his life. Was the kid suddenly going to sober up and be able to operate a weapon. What was the kid actually doing that prompted the officer to shoot? The article indicates some sort of move to the pelvis. Well, that’s exactly where a seat belt buckles, you know. Maybe he was just trying to get himself out of the car (maybe not, of course, but what he wasn’t in actuality doing was going for a gun).

    There may be very good and reasonable answers to all these questions, but I don’t have any problem with letting a jury decide them after hearing all the evidence in open court, as opposed to the prosecutor “closing ranks” with the police and not bringing charges.

    Which is what usually happens in the majority of these kind of cases.

  3. In this particular situation – I don’t think race had anything to do with it at all and it doesn’t even really relate to police work per se because the criminal did not even know the guy was a policeman until well into the incident.

    how you make this particular thing relevant to the whole issue of race and policing and black on black crime is bizarre but it is in my mind illustrative of those who have become so polarized on the whole issue that ANY event that has a black guy getting killed by a “policeman” becomes a part of the continuing saga…. even if it has almost nothing to do with any of it.

    from this altercation that does not involve “policing” strategy and tactics what-so-ever – just a totally disconnected and sad incident – we start to take it back into the polarized political realm…

    who knows what happened.. it could have just as easily been some whacked out white guy on opiates assailing a person that looks civilian in a civilian car… in a car wash jesus-H-keeerist…

    there is no question what-so-ever in my mind that the current messed up thinking about Community Policing needs a reality check. You don’t send total strangers who don’t live in a community – into that community to essentially “occupy” it to “keep the peace” and expect good relations with citizens who don’t trust you and who actually fear you.

    People in Ferguson – actually were going to jail over things like broken auto equipment they got ticketed for and could not pay the fine… You don’t “bond” to a community when that kind of thing is going on.

    In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger

    http://www.npr.org/2014/08/25/343143937/in-ferguson-court-fines-and-fees-fuel-anger

    so then we have folks who take this car wash incident to “illustrate” that “police work is dangerous and policemen are “good” guys just trying to do their job”.

    one thing is for sure- there is obviously no intent to try to move us to a better place on this – we’ve gone to our respective corners – and engage in symbolic story telling to “prove” our “beliefs”.

    I posted this before I saw Rowinguy’s response which has similar sentiments but in a more moderate tone – but I must say it’s tiresome to see these kinds of posts from Jim sometimes.

  4. “To understand some of the distrust of police that has fueled protests in Ferguson, Mo., consider this: In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.

    A new report released the week after 18-year old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson helps explain why. ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-area public defender group, says in its report that more than half the courts in St. Louis County engage in the “illegal and harmful practices” of charging high court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses like traffic violations — and then arresting people when they don’t pay. The report singles out courts in three communities, including Ferguson.

    Thomas Harvey, who started the organization to provide legal services to the poor in the St. Louis region and is the lead author of the report, says residents, especially in Ferguson, have come to see the use of fines and fees as a way for courts to collect money from residents who are often the least able to pay.

    “Folks have the impression that this is a form of low-level harassment that isn’t about public safety. It’s about money,” he says.

    The ArchCity Defenders report argues that this resentment is justified. Last year, Ferguson collected $2.6 million in court fines and fees. It was the city’s second-biggest source of income of the $20 million it collected in revenues.

    Earlier this year, in the series Guilty and Charged, NPR’s investigations unit found that the practices in Ferguson are common across the country. The series reported that nationwide, the costs of the justice system are billed increasingly to defendants and offenders, and that this creates harsher treatment of the poor. Because people with money can pay their hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines and fees right away, they are usually done with the court system.

    People who can’t pay their fines and fees go on payment plans. But then there are extra fees, sometimes interest — 12 percent on felonies in Washington state — and, if poor people fall behind on payments, they may go to jail. Courts often ignore laws, Supreme Court rulings and protections that outlaw the equivalent of debtors prisons.

    Just like around the U.S., these municipal court fines in Ferguson are for low-level offenses, usually traffic violations. Harvey calls these “poverty crimes.” Typically, he says, someone gets stopped for a rolling stop at a stop sign, or for a broken tail light. Then police find other problems.

    “It’s driving while suspended, no proof of insurance and failure to register a vehicle,” he says.

    The fines and fees can add up to hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

    Racial Disparity In Ferguson Traffic Stops

    Data from the Missouri state attorney general’s office show that black drivers are stopped in Ferguson in disproportionate numbers, even though Ferguson police are more likely to find contraband when they stop white drivers.

    Blacks make up 67 percent of the city’s population, but are 86 percent of motorists stopped by police. Whites make up 29 percent of the population, but 12.7 percent of vehicle stops.”

    • You’re describing a real problem. Insofar as municipalities use the justice system as a profit center to fund government, it represents a major injustice. I totally sympathize with poor peoples’ resentment with the way the system works — it is predatory and arbitrary. Middle-class people would never put up with it. Either should the poor.

      However, that is a very different problem from the racist-white-cops-kills-unarmed-black-youth narrative.

      Hopefully, Virginia’s criminal justice system doesn’t do anything comparable. I will stay alert to any signs of it and write about it if I encounter it.

  5. “However, that is a very different problem from the racist-white-cops-kills-unarmed-black-youth narrative” …. Hopefully, Virginia’s criminal justice system doesn’t do anything comparable. I will stay alert to any signs of it and write about it if I encounter it.”

    Thank you. Few are doing that. And all concerned suffer injustice as a result.

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