Clive McFarlane: Video missing piece in whether police shooting justified

Clive McFarlane The Telegram & Gazette
Columnist Clive McFarlane.


I am waiting to see the video of a Boston police officer and an FBI agent killing Usaama Rahim before forming an opinion as to whether his death was justified.

Sure, I know the police and FBI have painted a rather convincing portrait of justifiable homicide here — that the dead man was radicalized, that he had imminent plans to begin beheading police randomly and that he was bent on fulfilling those plans when he was stopped and shot in a parking lot by the officer and agent.

Recent events should tell you what many in the African-American community have known for a lifetime — that when it comes to police reports, trust is not an option. You need verification.

Remember Walter Scott, the South Carolina man who died after he was shot by police officer Michael Slager earlier this year?

A cellphone video of that incident showed the officer firing eight shots at a fleeing Mr. Scott, and after Mr. Scott was dropped by five of those shots, he planted a stun gun by the body and walked away without offering first aid.

Before that video was made public, however, the officer, using his lawyer and his police department spokesman, spun a different tale that the media gobbled up, hook, line and sinker.

Here is how an NBC affiliate reported on the incident.

“The officer deployed his department-issued taser in an effort to detain the driver, which was not effective. An altercation between the officer and the driver took place, leading to a struggle over the officer’s taser. During the struggle, the suspect gained control of the taser to use it against the officer.

“The officer then discharged his service weapon to stop the threat.

“Even though lifesaving efforts were conducted by officers prior to EMS’s arrival and EMS efforts on scene, the suspect was pronounced dead.”

False reports are seemingly the norm rather than the exception in police practices.

In 2012, one man was mortally injured and another was paralyzed with brain damage following a collision between the dirt bike on which they were riding and a police cruiser in the Bronx. In sworn statements, the police said the accident occurred when the bike’s operator cut suddenly in front of the cruiser.

Witnesses at the time contradicted the officer’s story, alleging that the cruiser had rammed the bike from behind.

We learned this week that those witnesses were correct. A surveillance video of the incident showed the bike being pursued and rear-ended by the police cruiser.

So, relative to this latest police shooting in Boston, even if we accept the alleged radicalism and imminent terror campaign of the dead man, there is still the question of whether his killing was justifiable and on this point the word of law enforcement officials is decidedly not trustworthy.

Yet, while manufacturing evidence and filing false incident reports by the police could be considered a greater threat to our democracy than terrorism, there has not been any credible and sustained steps taken to monitor and rid law enforcement of such pernicious behavior.

And disappointingly, mainstream media have continued to use those reports uncritically in their news coverage, as journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out in a piece he wrote for The Intercept.

“... Just like that, major American media outlets converted someone about whom they knew nothing into a dangerous terrorist in the middle of executing an ISIS-related terror plot,” Mr. Greenwald wrote, alluding to how quickly the local and national media ran with the storyline law enforcement officials were pushing.

“And the heroic law enforcement officials didn’t just kill an ISIS terrorist on the loose in America, but likely disrupted a vicious sleeper cell. All of that was achieved without a shred of evidence or investigation: just mindlessly repeating the self-justifying claims of the police agents who had just killed him.”

It is possible that everything the law enforcement officials are saying in this case will pan out. A group of community leaders who have seen the surveillance video of the shooting told the Associated Press, for example, that it did not substantiate claims by Rahim’s brother that he was shot in the back while using his cell phone.

Nevertheless, neither Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts or Boston Muslim leader Imam Abdullah Faaruuq, two of the community members who viewed the video, were ready to call the homicide justifiable.

Indeed, Mr. Faaruuq said the video was inconclusive as to whether deadly force was needed.

“They might have approached him in a different way,” he said.

We will be able to judge for ourselves when the video is released to the public.