Rethinking the Legal Protection of American Police for Cowardice
Police held back parents as Uvalde, Texas shooter killed 19 children
Parents and onlookers begged a team of police to go after a lone gunman after he entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where he killed 19 children and two teachers over the course of an hour.
An officer first passed by the shooter in his vehicle outside the school but failed to see him or stop him from entering. Once inside, the shooter blocked himself in a classroom where all his killings took place. Police first tried to enter the classroom but gave up after two were grazed. For the next hour, the growing mass of police focused on restraining and threatening parents and onlookers who wanted to enter the school and save the kids. After 40 minutes, a border patrol tactical team arrived, but they were initially told not to enter the classroom even as 9-1-1 calls were still coming from inside. A half hour later, the tactical team breached the door and brought down the shooter.
It’s unclear how many children died as a result of the wasted hour, but it’s well known in the medical community that there is a Golden Hour to save patients after they sustain traumatic injuries; at least one child is confirmed to have died as a result of the wasted hour.
(Note: This timeline has been revised. An earlier version used initial statements that officers engaged with the shooter prior to his entering the school, but that timeline was revised to state that no officers engaged with the shooter, who entered the school more quickly than initially believed.)
The officers appeared to be motivated by an egregious reading of a judicial precedent that American police are legally protected for cowardice. However, while the police may be legally protected for their own cowardice, it’s unclear whether that protection extends to actively preventing others from stopping mass murder. American commentators will surely devolve into their usual talking points on this event, but they all seem moot in this case. What the police did was abhorrent and possibly criminal, even under current law. The story is gut-wrenching, and one of the most despicable acts of cowardice ever recorded.
Many factors account for the bizarre prevalence of mass shootings in America, but not enough attention has been given to the uniquely broad legal protections afforded to American police for cowardice. Police cowardice played a crucial role in at least three of America’s deadliest mass shootings: This latest shooting in Uvalde, the 2018 Parkland, Florida shooting, and the 1999 shooting in Columbine, Colorado.
The legal protection of American police for cowardice is a judicial precedent that’s expanded over time. It’s something of a bastard lovechild born of the American right’s too-often unconditional praise of police, and the wide belief on the left that no adult should ever have to face the slightest danger. Judges seem to like it because it sounds nice and modern, though it’s unclear whether it has any positive effect, or why any person should be legally protected from being afraid to do the job that they’re specifically trained and paid to do at great public expense.
After the horrifying events in Uvalde, one word is trending on both the left and the right: “Cowardice.” For the vast majority of history, cowardice in the line of duty wasn’t tolerated. Curtailing the broad legal protection of American police for cowardice when the lives of others are at risk could swiftly and significantly reduce mass shootings in America. Lawmakers should take advantage of the present bipartisan horror with the cowardice they just witnessed in Uvalde to get rid of this strange tumor of a judicial precedent.
Too often, Americans can’t find any common ground on how to deal with mass shootings. This time can be different.
Michael P Senger is an attorney and author of Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World.