“Police shoot, kill [X].” It’s the formula for an all too formulaic event. I’ve read it hundreds of times; so have you. Google News returns 19300 results when you search for it. It would be wrong to say, though, that one has read the formula “Police shoot, kill [X]” hundreds of times. I haven’t, at least. I realized this upon encountering this headline a few days ago: “Police Officers in South Jersey Shoot, Kill Man During Traffic Stop.” Normally I would click through, accumulate information about the event, and become angrier and angrier at cops who kill and the journos who invariably carry their water. (Consider the first sentence: “A traffic stop turned deadly overnight in South Jersey.” Serving as the grammatical subject of the sentence, it as if the traffic stop mutated of itself, as if the stop itself turned itself into something else. The scenario absorbs agency and de-localizes responsibility.) This time, though, the formula arrested my attention. I don’t know why.
“Police shoot, kill [X].” We might consider it a masterstroke of journalistic economy. Not only does it communicate a great deal of information, but it economizes the communiqué by truncating the relationship between shooting and killing. Grammar itself becomes the grammar of the event: a comma links the event of shooting and the event of killing. “Police shoot, kill [X].” Rhetoricians might call this diazeugma, a figure of speech wherein a single subject controls multiple verbs. It’s not, though: “shoot, kill” has achieved the status of a legal doublet (like “aid and abet” or “cease and desist”), and so functions as a complex but functionally unitary verb. The comma marks the complexity of a unitary process, then, but it does so by leaving unremarked the substantive relations between the terms. The formula is unreadable because it gives nothing to be read, substituting the contingency of apposition—even if this contingency, this being-beside-one-another, of “shoot, kill” seems ineluctable—for a reasoned articulation of the terms.
And so I found myself, as I encountered the formula, generating a list of the possible relations that the formula’s skeletal structure makes articulable but occludes.
Police shoot, kill [X].
Police shoot and kill [X].
Police shoot and happen to kill [X].
Police shoot and therefore kill [X].
Police shoot and accidentally kill [X].
Police shoot without intending to kill [X].
Police shoot because they intended to kill [X].
Police shoot because they needed to kill [X].
Police shoot, and therefore [X] was right to be killed.
When police shoot, they kill.
When police shoot, they can kill.
When police can shoot, they kill.
When police shoot, they sometimes kill.
When police shoot, they sometimes don’t kill.
When police shoot, they intend to kill.
When police shoot, they sometimes intend to kill.
When police shoot, they don’t always intend to kill.
This list is hardly exhaustive. The skeletal quality of the formula “Police shoot, kill [X]” means that there is a nearly infinite number of ways that the relationship between shooting and killing could be enfleshed. We might say, then, that part of the formula’s work is to evacuate the event of any reason in the anticipation of reason’s post hoc construction. The forensic examination, the testimonies, the administrative review, sometimes the grand jury, sometimes the trial, and definitely us, as we read newspaper articles and debate on Twitter or Facebook: the formula incites us, all of us, to acts of post hoc reconstructive reasoning. And so we read past the headline, through it, in order to begin the work of articulating and adjudicating the contingent but ineluctable co-presence of shooting and killing. “Police shoot, kill [X]”: let the inquest begin. Just keep reading.
The problem, though, is that some of the possible ways by which the skeletal formula might be enfleshed are administrative and legal impossibilities for U.S. cops. Consider, for instance, “Police shoot without intending to kill [X].” It is inadmissible. If a cop feels himself or the public to be so threatened that shooting a gun is required, the administrative rule is always shoot to kill. (Indeed, it is when cops shoot and don’t kill that something has gone wrong—not legally, but practically. They missed.) Cops have roundly rejected shoot-to-wound initiatives, and they have had the Supreme Court on their side. With Graham v. Connor, the court ruled that the “objective reasonableness” of a cop’s use of force determined the legality of that use of force. Legally, this means that the 4th Amendment (with the protections it affords against “unreasonable searches and seizures”) trumps the due process clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments (which the plaintiff cited as the basis of his legal beef). One is not entitled to due process in the scene of the law’s enforcement; due process always comes before and after. The juridical void that attends the evacuation of due process from the scene of enforcement is instead filled in with what cops determine to be reasonable (or unreasonable).
This is in part why it’s impossible to indict a cop. But it’s not just that the cops have “leeway” or that the system “protects” them. Rather, retroactive attempts to determine the legality of a police shooting shatter upon the realization that it is the cop himself who determines the legality of the force they apply. Police supply the legal rule. But this rule turns out not to be law but situational reason. As Rehnquist put it in the court’s opinion on Graham, the very dictates of situational reason refuse regularization or formalization:
"The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight…The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” And earlier, citing a previous case, he notes, “The test of reasonableness is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application."
There is no canon of cop reason, but reason is all cops have. If there’s a bad shoot, cops haven’t so much broken the law as they have acted unreasonably. But we can’t know if they acted unreasonably, because the reason of hindsight differs from “the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” We’re not cops, and certainly not the cops who were there. The activity of policing assembles a present asymptotic with law’s time, but it does so through the law: the provision against unreasonable search and seizure becomes legally grounded on the fluid, flexible, formless reason of cops.
Police render law inoperative in the act of enforcing it. And so the truth of the formula “Police shoot, kill [X],” which incites us to interpretive reason by its very refusal to articulate the relationship between its terms. When police shoot, kill, there is nothing legally judicable in the event—not for we who weren’t there, for we who aren’t cops. For us, there doesn’t need to be a legal or even reasonable connection between the components the event, because it is the inaccessible, incommunicable rationality of police that articulates them. The comma serves as an index of law’s presence at the event of its enforcement: it is there, but silent, a mark without semantic value, a connection that cannot speak what it connects because the cop’s reason will improvise the articulation each time, every time. Not an aporia of law but a sign of law’s infinite malleability. It just isn’t malleable for most of us.
Let’s take the comma, then, as an incitement to move beyond normative idioms when relating to police violence. The police are unencumbered by any superordinate normativity; they give the law to themselves and to us through their situational reason. In this situation, police violence can only appear as a hyper-contingent materialization of force—because that is all it is. Police shoot, kill. You get it in the headline, and it’s all we need to know.