That so many in the press have tied what happened in Columbus on Tuesday to what happened to George Floyd has been peculiar from the moment we learned that Ma’Khia Bryant was brandishing a knife when she was killed. But the comparison strikes me as even more peculiar when one grasps that the questions in play here are by no means limited to the police.
When he apprehended George Floyd, Derek Chauvin was doing something that is almost exclusively within the purview of police officers: namely, arresting a man for an alleged crime. What happened to Floyd was outrageous in and of itself — had I been on the jury, I would have voted to convict Chauvin for manslaughter, and possibly more — but it was especially outrageous because Chauvin had been vested with a particular trust and, as a result, enjoyed a particular power over Floyd. Irrespective of their innocence, private citizens are not allowed to run away from police officers, or to resist arrest — an arrangement that may well be necessary, but which makes it more, rather than less, important that cops do their jobs with restraint.
The case of Ma’Khia Bryant is different, in that, although it was a cop who intervened, it did not have to be. Indeed, had an armed bystander fired the shots, the arguments would have been exactly the same. Caroline notes that “interim Columbus Police Chief Michael Woods told reporters Wednesday that state law permits police to use deadly force to protect themselves or others.” This is true. But it’s also true of private citizens. Under Ohio law, “a person is allowed to act in self-defense, defense of another, or defense of that person’s residence.” Moreover, if the person being attacked is in “imminent danger,” that person is allowed to use “lethal force.” As a review on Cleveland.com puts it, in Ohio “the self-defense laws transfer to you if you would fear death or serious injury in their position.”
In this particular case, the act was committed by a police officer. But exactly the same legal calculations would have applied if a neighbor had stepped in. When examining the role of cops in our society, we ought to remember that.