The fatal shooting of a man armed with a hairbrush

By Scott Tibbs, November 19, 2007

Criticism of the New York City police Department is growing in the aftermath of police shooting an unarmed mentally disabled man to death. The case is already mired in racial issues, and with the "Jena 6" controversy and noose incidents getting a lot of publicity, this could quickly become a public relations and political mess. I expect candidates for President (specifically on the Democrat side) to weigh in on the subject soon, if they have not done so already.

Let's review the facts. Khiel Coppin was having an episode, screaming, threatening violence against himself and others, and claiming that he had a gun. In one of the conversations with a 911 operator, Coppin's mother asked, "Who says he does not have a firearm?" When police arrived, he continued claiming to have a gun, and police officers observed that he had a knife. When Coppin "suddenly charged (police officers) outside (his mother's) home with a black object in his hand", the police opened fire, killing him. (See articles here, here, here and here.)

First off, I take issue with applying the label "teen" to Khiel Coppin. At 18 years old, Coppin is a legal adult. Someone who is 18 can vote, fight in a war, and run for certain political offices. While Coppin is still technically a teenager, using the word "teen" or "teenager" unnecessarily inflames an already tense situation and prejudices people against the police officers who used lethal force against him. Since it serves no journalistic purpose (other than more website hits, TV viewers and newspapers sold) to call Coppin a "teen", the media should simply refer to him as a "man".

The portions in italics above are emphasized to make a point: given media reports, it was perfectly reasonable for police to believe that Coppin, who was clearly in an irrational state, did have a gun and was going to use it. With no time to deliberate the issue, the police made a decision to use lethal force to protect themselves and innocent bystanders. To use a worn-out cliché, it is easy to play Monday morning quarterback when the vast majority of us will never be in that situation.

The statement by New York City Councilman Albert Vann that "black life and Latino life is not valued the same as other human life" was irresponsible and far beneath what one should expect of an elected official. This unnecessarily inflammatory comment was completely uncalled for and does nothing to serve the cause of justice. It is critical that we safeguard the rights of the officers who acted against an irrational and violent suspect who they believed to be armed. Vann's statement is counterproductive and he should apologize for it.

Based on early reports, I believe the shooting was justified. I do not see the harm in further investigation of the shooting, provided it is a genuine effort to get at the truth and not a witch hunt designed to appease people like Al Sharpton of the infamous Tawana Brawley "rape" hoax. Citizens have both a right and a responsibility to hold government accountable, especially when the use of lethal force is involved. But making this case a political freak show will do nothing but line the pockets of hustlers and extortionists, while justice is long forgotten.

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