About 200 people attended a rally for Robert White last Sunday. Photo courtesy Sue Udry.
The following was submitted by Cyrus Sethna as a letter to the editor of the Source and is posted by request.
In reference to the recent fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in Silver Spring—my home—let me start by saying black lives matter. I am a person of color and poignantly aware that I could be Robert White.
Mr. White was shot by Montgomery County Police Officer Anand Badgujar in an altercation captured on his body camera. My initial reaction was one of outrage at yet another case in the ongoing epidemic of police violence against men of color. But upon examining the available facts more closely, I have begun to rethink my gut.
The loss of human life is always regrettable and Officer Badgujar acted appropriately in defense of our community and his own life. I would like to address two key complaints from my neighbors against Officer Badgujar.
First, he is out of touch with the community he was assigned to police. Had he recognized Mr. White’s mental illness, he could have responded differently. Second, that non-lethal force would have been effective in subduing Mr. White.
Officer Badjugar is out of touch with the community.
Whether or not Officer Badgujar recognized Mr. White does not change the nature of Mr. White’s actions. As Gavin de Becker explains in, The Gift of Fear, most acts of violence are perpetrated by people known to the victim. In this case, a police officer carried out their duty, investigating suspicious behavior.
Although Mr. White was dealing with mental illness, the gun laws of this country do not preclude him from legally obtaining a firearm. Officer Badgujar was correct in identifying a possible threat to the peace and investigating accordingly. Though Mr. White was ultimately unarmed, Officer Badjugar had no way of verifying this.
Non-lethal force would have been sufficient to subdue Mr. White.
The current discussion is rife with criticism for not seeking out non-lethal solutions to the confrontation. The officer did do these things.
When confronted by Mr. White, Officer Badgujar first asked him to stop. Mr. White rushed Officer Badgujar, who deployed pepper spray and his ASP expanding baton. Mr. White was not deterred from further aggression and the conflict escalated
Officer Badgujar did try and utilize other methods to prevent the loss of life. Non-lethal methods were not effective and Officer Badgujar was assaulted on two occasions, visible from the body camera. The final altercation, captured on the backup officer’s camera, shows Mr. White wrestling with Officer Badgujar on the ground—a dangerous situation for both men.
It’s easy to point fingers of blame, days removed from the heat of the moment. Can any of Officer Badgujar’s critics speak from his level of police experience (five years as a Baltimore police officer, rising to the rank of sergeant; two years with Montgomery County)? If faced with the same circumstances, fearful for our lives yet duty-bound up uphold the peace, many would do the same.
Confronting my own reaction.
Coverage of this incident has been lopsided and plays into the trends of our current news cycle. Without reviewing the footage released by the Montgomery County Police Department, we are wont to believe the officer could have addressed Mr. White with more courtesy, avoiding terms like “Big Man” and “Bro.” That he could have waited for a backup officer to arrive before beginning pursuit on-foot. That he could have practiced verbal de-escalation rather than confronting Mr. White, gun-in-hand. That all these missteps contributed to the situation where an unarmed man was killed.
This captures only a partial truth at best. Officer Badgujar does refer to Mr. White as “sir” in addition to these other terms of address. He takes a respectful approach and also alters his register, a clear effort to meet Mr. White where he is and an example of community policing. Waiting for a backup officer was not an option. Mr. White was mobile and failure to pursue would have resulted in losing a potential threat to public safety. Finally, the officer tells Mr. White on multiple occasions that he does “not want to shoot him.”
This regrettable situation highlights the ever-pressing need to allocate public resources to support those living in mental health crises. We live in an armed society, where law enforcement cannot presume a monopoly on lethal force. Black lives matter and this is a not a part of the epidemic of unjustified police violence; it is a story of a dedicated public servant at work in service to our community.