Don’t be quick to judge by autopsy

Let’s don’t be quick to judge. Those are words easy to write but harder to apply as autopsy results from a Memorial Day standoff that resulted in the killing of a Warsaw man are consumed by the general public.

It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback, sitting safely in our homes spouting our opinions on social media, far removed from the actuality of that night in May when officers were called to assist a man in the Burger King parking lot only to find him holed up in his car, refusing police urgings to surrender. But before we pass judgment, let’s try, at least, to sort out the facts and put ourselves, for just a moment, in the shoes of officers outside a fast food restaurant in the wee hours of the morning, unsure of the situation they were encountering but knowing that the man in the vehicle they had surrounded was armed with at least one weapon.

The autopsy results released this week from the Office of the State Medical Examiner showed that John Mark Coffey was shot 14 times during that standoff with police. That is fact.

It showed myriad other things, including a testament to his physical and mental health, the number of medications he was on at the time of the standoff and what led to his confrontation with Clinton police officers and a Highway Patrol trooper. Those, too, are facts, based on interviews with those closest to Coffey and medical records that clearly pinpoint his physical condition and the medications he was using to treat those conditions.

Fact, too, is that when 911 operators were called from Burger King on that fateful morning they were told that a man was in the parking lot and had asked that the call be made because he needed help. The kind of help was never made clear to anyone.

Another clear fact is that officers made numerous attempts to negotiate with Coffey, urging him to put down his weapon and surrender. Also fact, based on body camera video and testimony, is that Coffey told officers he had five rounds of ammunition and was not coming out of his vehicle.

We also know that Coffey did come out of his vehicle and that when he did, he was pointing the weapon at the officers who, in turn, opened fire on the man, killing him.

With all the media hype lately surrounding police shootings and the killing of police officers, it would be easy to allow the national media’s hyped-up coverage of those events to cloud our thinking as we try to digest the autopsy results.

On its surface, one might say, that shooting someone 14 times is overkill. Looked at from one angle, it is true. But when you consider that there were eight armed officers on the scene when Coffey stepped out of his car and pointed a weapon at them, one could also say that was two shots each fired at the man officers rightfully assumed was aiming to shoot them.

Now put yourself in one of the officers’ shoes. Imagine getting the call, pulling up to the Burger King parking lot and encountering a man you now know has a weapon. You have no idea, however, what his intentions are. Then he says he has five rounds of ammunition and he’s not coming out of the car. Tension mounts, there’s no movement, guns are raised and everyone waits. Then the man steps out, a gun raised toward you.

What would you do? And when the first shot is fired, what would you do then? Would you know who fired first? Would you wait to see?

Clinton Police have been very forthcoming about the incident from the start. They wear body cameras daily and they have video cameras in their cars. It’s a practice that we think shows immediate transparency and a willingness to let the video speak for their actions. It’s video the city has already said it will make public once the investigation is complete.

Could the incident have been handled better? No question. Should officers learn lessons from the first police shooting the city has seen in 50 years? Without question. But do we think they acted irresponsibly? Not at all.

It is tragic that Mr. Coffey lost his life in this unfortunate incident that, by the way, has also devastated his family as well as the officers involved.

But we do not believe officers should be judged harshly for doing their jobs. And, when the smoke clears, that is exactly what they did. They did not fire first and ask questions later. They tried repeatedly to get Coffey to surrender.

In their shoes it would be hard to see how anyone would have done any differently.

comments powered by Disqus