So, You Want to Be a Police Officer?

On the night of August 5, a man named William Hughes was shot and killed by two St. Paul police officers. The officers were responding to a 911 caller who said there were multiple gunshots on the second floor of a duplex.

After Hughes’s death, his family, along with the usual suspects, demanded “the release of [body camera] footage, data from 911 calls and a third-party investigation into the shooting.” Yesterday, St. Paul’s police chief released the video that was recorded by the two officers’ cameras.

The videos show the two officers approaching the duplex in the dark. There is no apparent sign of life. They decide to knock on the door of the ground floor unit to ask the occupant whether he or she heard gunshots. When they do so, a voice from behind the door says “I will kill you.” The officers proceed with a flashlight and at least one drawn firearm.

In the videos, you can see Hughes step into the corridor in front of the two officers. They immediately begin yelling at him to put his hands in the air. They quickly see that Hughes has a gun in his right hand. They yell at him to drop it. Instead, he raises the gun into the air, ultimately pointing it at the ceiling. He doesn’t fire, but when the officers see Hughes disregarding their instructions and instead raising his firearm, they begin shooting.

The videos are riveting. They remind us, once again, what a difficult job we expect law enforcement officers to perform. These two policemen approached a house in the dark where shots had reportedly been fired. They had every reason to believe there was at least one armed man inside. When they knocked on the door they heard someone say “I will kill you.” Their job required them to proceed into the unknown, and to make split-second decisions if a person appeared in front of them:

To me, the most affecting moment in the videos is just after the officers have shot Hughes and one of them screams, “Goddamn it!” What happened to Hughes was not the outcome that these officers, or any officers, hoped for. From that officer’s perspective, the encounter with Hughes was a failure. No policeman wakes up in the morning hoping he will get to shoot someone that day. And in fact, only a small minority of officers are ever called upon to fire their weapons.

Since Hughes’s death, this information has been reported:

Search warrant affidavits filed earlier this week showed that the day he was killed, Hughes reportedly fell out of his “elevated bed,” grew angry, fired two gunshots in the apartment and pointed the gun at his roommate’s head.

Court documents also show that Hughes reportedly texted relatives this past spring that he had contemplated suicide. They explained that Hughes “had an ongoing medical condition that limited his quality of life. [Hughes’] medical condition was diagnosed as a terminal illness,” the affidavits said.

This may have been a case of suicide by cop. Whatever caused Hughes to act as he did, the encounter will forever scar the lives of the two St. Paul police officers who had to make a life or death decision in the blink of an eye.