by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
In a recent piece at the Hill, legal scholar Jonathan Turley suggests the answer is probably, “No.” Responding to a recent NBC interview in which Byrd claimed the shooting “saved countless lives,” Turley says:
I have long expressed doubt over the Babbitt shooting, which directly contradicted standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement. But what was breathtaking about Byrd’s interview was that he confirmed the worst suspicions about the shooting and raised serious questions over the incident reviews by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and, most recently, the Capitol Police.
Babbitt, 35, was an Air Force veteran and ardent supporter of former President Trump. She came to Washington to protest the certification of the presidential Electoral College results and stormed into the Capitol when security lines collapsed. She had no criminal record but clearly engaged in criminal conduct that day by entering Capitol and disobeying police commands. The question, however, has been why this unarmed trespasser deserved to die.
When protesters rushed to the House chamber, police barricaded the chamber’s doors; Capitol Police were on both sides, with officers standing directly behind Babbitt. Babbitt and others began to force their way through, and Babbitt started to climb through a broken window. That is when Byrd killed her.
At the time, some of us familiar with the rules governing police use of force raised concerns over the shooting. Those concerns were heightened by the DOJ’s bizarre review and report, which stated the governing standards but then seemed to brush them aside to clear Byrd.
The DOJ report did not read like any post-shooting review I have read as a criminal defense attorney or law professor. The DOJ statement notably does not say that the shooting was clearly justified. Instead, it stressed that “prosecutors would have to prove not only that the officer used force that was constitutionally unreasonable, but that the officer did so ‘willfully.’” It seemed simply to shrug and say that the DOJ did not believe it could prove “a bad purpose to disregard the law” and that “evidence that an officer acted out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgment cannot establish the high level of intent.” …
Of all of the lines from Byrd, this one stands out: “I could not fully see her hands or what was in the backpack or what the intentions are.” So, Byrd admitted he did not see a weapon or an immediate threat from Babbitt beyond her trying to enter through the window. Nevertheless, Byrd boasted, “I know that day I saved countless lives.” …
Legal experts and the media have avoided the obvious implications of the two reviews in the Babbitt shooting. Under this standard, hundreds of rioters could have been gunned down on Jan. 6 — and officers in cities such as Seattle or Portland, Ore., could have killed hundreds of violent protesters who tried to burn courthouses, took over city halls or occupied police stations during last summer’s widespread rioting. In all of those protests, a small number of activists from both political extremes showed up prepared for violence and pushed others to riot. According to the DOJ’s Byrd review, officers in those cities would not have been required to see a weapon in order to use lethal force in defending buildings. …
Like many, I condemned the Jan. 6 riot (along with those who fueled the unhinged anger that led to the violence) as the desecration of our Capitol and our constitutional process. But that doesn’t mean rioting should be treated as a license for the use of lethal force, particularly against unarmed suspects. The “job” of officers, to which Byrd referred, often demands a courage and restraint that few of us could muster. As shown by every other officer that day, it is a job that is often defined by abstinence from rather than application of lethal force. It was the rest of the force who refrained from using lethal force, despite being attacked, that were the extraordinary embodiments of the principles governing their profession.