Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a law enforcement officer on duty other than being killed or seriously wounded or having a friend or loved one killed or seriously wounded is to be involved in a shooting of an unarmed person based on bad information that he or she had a gun.
Recently a tragic example of this type of shooting occurred in Bakersfield, CA.
Shortly after midnight on Monday Dec. 12, officers were called to a residential area of Bakersfield. Minutes later Francisco Serna, 73, was shot dead by police and no gun was found.
Officials say one of Serna’s neighbors called 911 after his wife was accosted by the man in the driveway. Tapes of the 911 call reveal that the caller told the dispatcher a man was outside his house and that the man had brandished what "looked like a revolver" at his wife.
Two officers responded. And reports say they were talking to the complainant’s wife, who had just told police she saw an object that she believed was a gun in the man’s jacket, when Serna came out of his house across the street and walked toward the officers with his hands in his jacket. The woman identified the approaching man and went back into her house as additional officers arrived on the scene.
The officers took cover and ordered Serna to remove his hands from his pockets. He did not comply, and one of the officers fired, killing him.
A search of Serna's body did not produce a gun, only a simulated woodgrain crucifix. Investigators also searched the man's home and did not find a gun. So it's likely the crucifix in his pocket was mistaken for a gun by the neighbors.
Serna's son is understandably angry. He told the local media his father was suffering from the early stages of dementia and sleeplessness. His family says the man walked around the neighborhood at night to try and tire himself out so he could sleep.
After the Serna shooting there were protests. There were candlelight vigils. There was talk of a lawsuit. And of course there were activists who have never been trained as law enforcement officers who have demanded to know why officers didn't use other force options or none at all in this confrontation.
Bakersfield Police Chief Lyle Martin has called the FBI in to investigate this shooting. And there is likely much to be learned. It's important for cases like this to be investigated. But it's also important for the investigators, the family, the press, and the public to remember that police were originally called to this scene with reports of a man with a gun who was brandishing said weapon at the neighbors. The fact that no gun was present after the officer-involved shooting cannot legally be taken into consideration of whether the shooting was justified. Officers were told the man had a gun, and according to police, he acted like he was concealing said gun in his pocket before he was shot.
People who believe that the officer acted rashly in this shooting tend to voice two arguments in this case: He was a harmless old man, and why didn't the officer wait to see what was in his hands before opening fire.
The harmless old man argument is easily refuted. I know, and you probably do, too, plenty of 73-year-old and even older people who can draw and fire handguns with great proficiency. As for waiting to see what comes out of the jacket of an uncooperative subject who reportedly has a revolver and won't remove his hands from his pockets, that's just a prescription for more officers getting shot. And after the extremely bloody year of 2016 that's the last thing this country needs.
What happened in Bakersfield in the early morning hours of Dec. 12 is a multi-faceted tragedy. But the officer who did the shooting was not to blame for it. Despite what some in the public believe, the officer did not want to shoot Francisco Serna. He fired to protect himself and his fellow officers from what he saw as the immediate threat of a man with a gun who would not comply with lawful police orders to show his hands. That officer will bear the consequences of this shooting probably for the rest of his life. Which is another horror from this terrible event.