Does unarmed mean not dangerous?

If you've been following the continuing story of the police officer who shot a teenager in Ferguson Missouri, you will have noticed a theme that runs through all the reporting, even in conservative media where reporters generally align with self-defense rights.

The theme is summed up in one word: unarmed.

Here are just a few random examples from among thousand of references online, on TV, and in print news:

From NBC News: Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

From CNN: Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot dead on August 9 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.

From USA Today: The unarmed black teen was shot and killed by a white police officer.

From FOX News: A suburban St. Louis police chief on Friday identified the officer whose fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager ignited days of heated protests ...

From The New York Times: Updates on the events in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer on Aug. 9.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that Michael Brown attacked Officer Darren Wilson, prompting the use of lethal force in self defense, nearly every report of this incident reminds the public that the teenager was unarmed.

In a story from PoliceOne.com, the officer had legal justification to use lethal force:

... the City of Ferguson Police Department's use of force policy (section 410.01) states: "An officer may use lethal force only when the officer reasonably believes that the action is in defense of human life, including the officer's own life."

But that doesn't count for much in the eyes of reporters and the general public who know next to nothing about guns, law, self defense, or lethal force reality. The article poses a question the media seem to be asking with every reference to the teen being "unarmed." 

"How can an officer be in fear of death or great bodily harm from an unarmed teenager?"

The article goes on to answer this question quite clearly:

First and foremost, the word "unarmed" does not equate to "not dangerous." In this case we had an attacker (Michael Brown) who was six feet, four inches tall and weighing 290+ pounds and a victim (Officer Wilson) who is shorter and lighter. And such size disparity affects the perception of the threat on the part of the person being attacked.

In addition to Brown’s size, we have to acknowledge Brown's mindset at the time of the encounter. Merely five minutes before the shooting, Brown and an accomplice had manhandled a store clerk while robbing a convenience store.

When Wilson stopped the pair, they were walking down the middle of the street, something often done as a means of intimidating drivers and pedestrians. This action alone suggests a mindset bent on confrontation.

Further, remember that Officer Wilson told investigators that Brown had pushed him back into his SUV, then struggled for his pistol inside that squad. When there is a physical fight between an officer and an assailant, there is always at least one gun present. If the officer loses consciousness or the ability to completely protect himself/herself, that gun may be used against them.

"The public and the media do not seem to grasp that once someone grabs an officer's weapon, he is no longer unarmed," said PoliceOne Columnist Dan Marcou.

There are a variety of ways that officers can perceive that they're under threat. Environmental factors such as being confined in a vehicle — being belted in and being assaulted — especially when facing someone who is vastly larger than yourself and charging at you, can increase an officer's perception of threat.

The misperception of unarmed equating to not dangerous is so prevalent that it causes people to arrive at absurd conclusions about when lethal force is justified. Consider this astonishing statement from a letter to the editor in The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, WA:

The only cause for use of lethal force is a lethal threat, which means one shot has to be fired at any officer first to justify any officer firing his gun back. Only then is lethal force objectively justified after we supplied police with so many nonlethal force alternatives. If you are a peace officer, you knew what you were getting into.

In other words, this person believes an officer shouldn't be able to use lethal force in self defense until an attacker is already shooting or the officer is already shot. And make no mistake, this naive misperception occurs in civilian cases too. When you defend yourself with a gun against an unarmed attacker, some will consider you to be unreasonable because your attacker was unarmed and not already blazing away at you.

We can only hope that the press, and the public, gets more educated about lethal force and self defense. But in the meantime, the PoliceOne.com article sums up why the officer in the Ferguson case was not indicted:

The grand jury in Ferguson (Mo.) has spoken, and there will be no criminal prosecution pursued against Officer Darren Wilson. The decision, outlined in detail tonight by St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch, comes about three and a half months after the officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown which sparked weeks of violent protest on the streets there and elsewhere, and a torrent of anti-cop fervor online.

Police officers, legal experts, and people who actually work in the law enforcement profession had expected no charges to be filed, and McCulloch spelled out clearly the rationale for the grand jury's decision — citing several times the inconsistent and contradictory statements made by many witnesses. But despite the rationale, the question from the general public will invariably be: "Why wasn't Officer Wilson indicted?"

The short answer is: Because he shouldn't have been indicted.