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farah stockman

Trigger-happy police, trigger-shy Secret Service

LEFT: A memorial marks the Ferguson, Mo., street where Michael Brown was shot by police on Aug. 9. RIGHT: Secret Service officers walk along the White House lawn Sept. 20, the day after a man scaled the fence and entered the building.ASSOCIATED PRESS

Here’s a quiz: Which crime is more likely to get you shot to death?

A) Scaling the fence outside the White House, with a knife;

B) Jaywalking in Ferguson, Mo., unarmed.

The answer, of course, is B, at least if you’re a black man. And it’s not just in Ferguson. In South Carolina, a state trooper pulled over 35-year-old Levar Jones for a seat belt violation, but shot him as he reached for his license. (Jones survived.) In Ohio, police killed 22-year-old John Crawford III in Wal-mart for carrying a pellet gun he had picked up off the store’s shelf. In Utah, police questioned 22-year-old Darrien Hunt outside a shopping mall because he was carrying a replica of a samurai sword. Moments later, they shot him to death, in the back. And that’s just in the past eight weeks.


It’s worth mentioning that these incidents all took place in small cities with almost no violent crime. Saratoga Springs, Utah, for instance, hasn’t seen a murder since 2010. Ferguson averages a little over one homicide a year. So why are police in those places so skittish? So quick to use deadly force? By the same token, why is the Secret Service so reluctant to do so?

According to Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the answer lies in the way law enforcement agents are trained to interact with the public. Too often, instead of deescalating conflict, police do just the opposite.

“Officers traditionally respond to disrespect or perceived challenges to their authority by stepping up their use of force,” he said. “It’s called ‘contempt of cop.’ Here in Omaha, if you are stopped by the police, you don’t ask a question. It will escalate up to where you are out of the car and under arrest.”

That’s how an officer trying to give jaywalking citations in Seattle ended up breaking a guy’s nose. The pedestrian didn’t feel he had done anything wrong, and refused to stop. The officer got physical. The Department of Justice investigated, and found a pattern of low-level offenses turning into excessive use of force in Seattle. Racial distrust can make that dynamic even worse.

In Ferguson, a white officer found Michael Brown and his friend walking in the middle of the road. He told them to “get the [expletive] on the sidewalk.” Brown and his friend didn’t obey, so the officer grabbed Brown through the car window, and pulled out his gun.


Compare that with the Secret Service at the White House. If they used that language with a member of the public, it’d be all over the news. So they don’t.

The Secret Service are trained to deescalate violent conflict. In 2001, when a disgruntled IRS employee fired a handgun outside the White House, agents told him, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Put the gun down.” They shot him in the knee, but he lived.

And in 1995, after a troubled doctoral student scaled the fence with an unloaded gun, an agent tackled him. Another shot him in the arm, but he, too, survived. In fact, there hasn’t been a fatal shooting at the White House since 1976, when a taxi driver scaled the fence with a pipe. (Coincidentally, or maybe not, he was black, and got shot through the heart.)

Considering how many people visit the White House daily, and how often people behave suspiciously outside the fence, it’s pretty remarkable that no one has been killed there in four decades — including, I might add, the president.

Of course, the recent intruder at the White House raises real questions about security, and real examples of the agency falling down on its job. But let’s all agree on one thing: if we shot everyone who scaled that fence, we’d have to get used to a lot of dead bodies on the White House lawn. At least 16 people have jumped over the fence in the past five years alone. Most were protesters, or mentally ill. All were apprehended without firing a shot. Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz seems to think they all ought to been executed on the spot by snipers, but I don’t.


The number of people the Secret Service doesn’t kill is an equally important measure of success — and one that police departments around the country ought to learn from.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.