A day after we read Shoftim, which contains the famous commandment, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” a 29-year-old man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back at point-blank range by a Kenosha, Wisconsin Police Officer named Rusten Sheskey. Raysean White from across the street recorded some of the encounter, including the shooting, on his phone. You can watch it (if you have not seen the video yet) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0DSTV7XT1E&bpctr=1598541940. The video is graphic.
The episode started with a 9-1-1 call. The caller complained that Blake was not supposed to be in that location, and he took the caller’s keys and would not give them back. Another version is that Blake exited his car and attempted to de-escalate a fight between two women. Police officers arrived and attempted to subdue Blake (including the use of Taser), but the video begins with three police officers standing up behind Blake’s SUV, and seconds later Blake stands up and goes around the front of his SUV. The police officers follow him closely, and Sheskey has his gun in both outstretched hands. Blake opens the driver door and attempts to enter his car. Sheskey grabs his undershirt, and then shoots Blake seven times in the back.
When I was an assistant prosecutor, I taught the Penal Code twice a year to police recruits. Chapter Three of the Penal Code authorizes police officers to use deadly force if they are confronted with deadly force. Also, police officers are authorized to use deadly force if they encounter people who are attempting enumerated crimes, if they encounter people who are in the midst of committing those same enumerated crimes, and if they encounter people fleeing the scene once they have committed the same enumerated crimes. The enumerated crimes are known as SHARKS crimes: sexual assault, homicide, arson, robbery, kidnaping, and sexual contact. The enumerated crimes include burglary. I always told the police recruits, you are authorized to shoot a fleeing burglar in the back, but you don’t want to the first police officer to shoot a fleeing burglar in the back.
Police officers have a dangerous job. Blake could have entered his SUV in search of readily available weapon. (There is evidence that there was a knife in the SUV. What kind of knife I don’t know, and there is little evidence that Blake was attempting to grab the knife.) Blake could have, on the other hand, entered his SUV to drive away from the scene. If the police officers were wary of a weapon, they should have scanned the SUV before they let Blake enter. To the best of my knowledge, there is no legal justification for shooting Blake, let alone in the back.
There is a reason why minority communities feel police officers treat them unfairly. Justice, justice, you shall pursue. The medieval sages wondered why Moses repeated Tzedek. The concluded that it is not enough to justice, we must do justice justly. We each of us must do our part to ensure that justice is applied even-handily.