The Cop Who Told Me He Wished He’d Shot a Black Man

The officer could have learned that deadly force was seldom necessary. Instead, he regretted his choice.

Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

In his forthcoming book Why Didn’t We Riot?, journalist and professor Issac J. Bailey interrogates what it means to be Black in “Trumpland”: those parts of the country “where white people overwhelmingly support Trump in spite of — or maybe because of — his open bigotry and racism,” he writes. “Black people everywhere face the struggle that is race and racism… But in Trumpland, it is different. It is harder to escape.” What follows is an excerpt about interacting with a white police officer.

As a white cop told me he had regretted not shooting a Black man in the head, I nodded along, trying to better understand his point of view, to empathize with him just a little more. I didn’t scream. I didn’t feel an urge to punch him in the mouth or shake him. I just sat there, nodding along as though I was listening to the tall tales of a friend I hadn’t seen in years but had long admired.

He told me how he had initiated what he believed would be a routine traffic stop somewhere near Charlotte, North Carolina. He told me how after approaching the car and noticing a few things that made him suspicious, he began thinking of ways of stalling until backup arrived to help him; how he made small talk with the two young Black men in the car to keep things on an even keel. I forgot what, specifically, made him suspicious or why he stopped the car, but I’m sure he said it had nothing to do with the skin color of the men in the car. No matter, because his instincts were right.

Before his backup arrived and as he was making small talk, the man in the passenger seat was suddenly trying to pull a rifle from underneath his seat. That’s when this white cop pounced on that Black man, with one hand struggling to prevent the man from lifting the rifle, the other unholstering his own gun, which he promptly pointed at the man’s head. If everything he told me was true, it would have been a justified shooting. He would have had to go through the mandated procedure every cop who shoots someone goes through. He’d be taken off the streets and relegated to desk duty until an internal investigation cleared him, which is the most common result of most police shootings, even with less clear circumstances.

Instead of pulling the trigger, he reholstered his gun and began fighting the man for control of the rifle. The fight seemed to last a lifetime as his backup made its way to the scene, that cop told me.

“I got my ass kicked,” he said.

He also secured the arrest of a young man who had a long criminal record and bad intentions that night. Though he got his ass kicked, he was able to hold on long enough for help to arrive. Though he got his ass kicked, he had no life-threatening injuries, and neither did the young Black man. It was proof that even during moments in which a police officer might be “justified” in shooting a suspect in the head, it wasn’t as necessary as many police officers and their defenders claim. It was proof that sometimes if a police officer is willing to get his ass kicked, he can save a life and prevent yet another incident that will potentially create distrust between police and the communities they patrol most frequently. That distrust, once rooted in, makes it exceedingly difficult for the community to embrace the police presence many of them need. It makes it less likely that community members in distress would be willing to call 911 — because they fear the cops more than the criminal down the street — and more likely they will take matters into their own hands, which fuels cycles of violence as much as poverty.

And yet, this was not the lesson he took; his fellow officers wouldn’t allow that. They made sure he wouldn’t forget how wrong he was — for not shooting a Black man in the head. His colleagues didn’t praise his bravery or quick thinking. They said he had unnecessarily put himself in danger. They said he had unnecessarily put the public in danger. “You got lucky,” they said.

It was proof that sometimes if a police officer is willing to get his ass kicked, he can save a life.

He could have told his fellow officers that maybe the shoot first, ask questions later to keep yourself safe mentality was outdated — and just plain wrong in more situations than they had considered. He could have told them that bravery is required when you are granted a uniform and a badge and trained and paid and given the power to ruin — or end — lives, the kind of bravery that says a suspect’s life is as important as your own. He could have reminded them that, as far as being killed on the job, being a police officer is not among the most dangerous professions, despite the persistent myth much of the public clings to. Loggers, roofers, steelworkers, sales workers, and truck drivers are killed on the job at higher rates than police officers. There has been no safer time in U.S. history to be a police officer. As former New York Times reporter Blake Fleetwood noted, in some large cities like Chicago, the average citizen faced a murder risk three times higher than the average cop. The Black man being stopped by police late at night on the side of the road has as much, or more, to fear than the cop who initiated the stop.

Instead of considering those realities, the white cop who told me his story harbored and nursed regrets for not shooting a Black man in the head.

The chances for a promotion that white cop had been wanting suddenly evaporated. He felt isolated, his relationships with fellow officers grew strained. He was not commended. No medal was affixed to his chest in a public ceremony for having saved a life.

That fateful traffic stop happened only a few weeks after he had returned to patrol after being cleared in a shooting during a different incident. He reholstered his gun because a quiet voice told him it would look bad if he shot another young Black man. It was that voice, maybe borne of guilt, that saved that Black man’s life, not an altruistic act by a benevolent white cop. Or maybe it was the public pressure — from relentless activists who refuse to be silent in the face of layers upon layers of racial injustices in the criminal justice system — that saved that Black man’s life, because their unrelenting voices made that white cop think twice before pulling that trigger again.

What I learned from my reaction to hearing his story is that for too long, I had not been among those loud, unrelenting voices demanding change. Mine hadn’t been one of the ones that likely saved that young Black man’s life that night. I learned that I had not done enough to remind police officers, and others granted an enormous amount of power, that we expect them to be better, to not value their own lives above others. I learned that I had spent so much time trying to empathize with them and understand the supposedly daily threats they face, in an effort to build bridges I believed others had been burning, and too little time holding them to account. I learned that there are plenty of Black people in Trumpland like me. We swallow our anger. We deny our fears. We hope against hope that our continuing efforts to reach out will be reciprocated. We do this even when we are the ones being killed or maimed or threatened by men and women in uniform we pay to protect us.

From Why Didn’t We Riot?: A Black Man in Trumpland by Issac J. Bailey. Soon to be published by Other Press.

Bailey (@ijbailey) is the James K. Batten Professor of Communication Studies at Davidson College and author of Why Didn’t We Riot?: A Black Man in Trumpland.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store