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For the second time in three years, police have killed a person named Scott at a Costco store. A Loudon County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Mhai Scott, a sub-contractor handing out pizza samples at a Costco store in Sterling, Va., on Wednesday. In 2010, Las Vegas Metro Police officers shot and killed Erik Scott as he walked out of a suburban Costco store. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between the two Scotts, Erik Scott was a West Point graduate with an MBA from Duke University who enjoyed body building and was a pharmaceutical sales rep. Mhai Scott was a petite, 38-year-old, divorced Filipino mother of two young children, whose ex-husband was in the U.S. military.
According to reports, Mhai Scott was working handing out free samples of pizza in the Sterling store but became agitated and began acting erratically, threatening fellow employees with a pair of scissors and possibly a knife. A witness who had contact with her shortly before she was killed said she was very nice and polite. But store employees called the police about Mrs. Scott’s behavior. Witnesses described three Loudon County sheriff’s deputies rushing in toward the employee lounge. A few moments later five shots rang out, and Mhai Scott was dead.
Police say that one officer attempted to subdue the woman with a Taser, but that the Taser “failed,” and the other officer fired five shots, killing Mrs. Scott and slightly wounding his partner, possibly by a ricochet. The two officers directly involved have been put on paid administrative leave and were probably not interviewed about the incident until Thursday when their attorneys and union representatives could be present for the questioning. Details of the shooting and the events leading up to it are still sketchy, but area residents and Internet posters are expressing concern over how quickly events escalated to the point of police use of deadly force.
From reports, it appears that one officer was involved in rounding up employees to take statements while the other two entered the lounge to subdue Mrs. Scott. At some point the officers decided to deploy the Taser, which under standard police procedures means that the second officer deploys his sidearm as backup. The problem with this tactic is that if the Taser fails, whether through malfunction, operator error, or obstruction, the backup officer’s pistol becomes the only readily available option since both officers’ hands are full. When dealing with an armed suspect, it isn’t considered safe to re-holster weapons to shift to a different approach. The question of why the officer felt it necessary to fire five times has not yet been answered.
An investigation will be conducted, and if all goes as usual, authorities will conclude that the shooting was justifiable. Unlike cases of defensive shootings by private citizens, when police are involved in a shooting, the key question always seems to be whether at the moment the officer pulled the trigger, he was justified in doing so. Factors leading up to that moment do not generally weigh heavily in the final determination. In non-LEO shootings, events leading up to a shooting are critically analyzed. Typically, if the shooter did anything to escalate the situation, or didn’t do something he could have done to de-escalate the situation, he’s going to face some serious repercussions. Also, a private citizen must be in reasonable fear of imminent serious injury or death before a shooting will be considered justified. LEO’s must only show that the subject was armed and threatening.
In the case of Erik Scott, the simple fact that he was armed was enough to clear the officers involved. Mr. Scott was legally carrying a concealed handgun while shopping in Costco, and the gun became visible when he bent over to look at some merchandise. A store manager approached him and told him that Costco has a corporate policy of forbidding firearms on their premises. Scott told them that he was licensed to carry and agreed to keep the gun concealed while he and his girlfriend finished up their shopping. Meanwhile, a Costco employee placed a call to Las Vegas Metro Police saying that a man with a gun was acting erratic in the store and scaring patrons. When police arrived they ordered the evacuation of the store and when Erik Scott walked out, officers yelled conflicting instructions at him in rapid succession and then shot him seven times. Witnesses said Scott had a cellphone in one hand and was raising his shirt with the other to let officers see the gun in his waistband. They said, and audio recordings confirm, that only about 5 to 6 seconds elapsed from the officer’s first command to the last shot.
A coroner’s inquest found the shooting to be justified despite several irregularities, including an ambulance report of Erik Scott’s pistol being taken off his body – still in the holster – during transport, but later appearing in crime scene photos lying on the ground where Scott’s body had been, and the video surveillance system at Costco mysteriously failing during the few minutes surrounding the shooting.
Erik Scott’s father, William Scott, has written a detailed account of what happened that day and included it in a recently released novel called “The Permit.”
Along with the irony of two people named Scott being killed by police in Costco stores, these cases highlight the growing gap between rules for police and those for the rest of the citizenry. Assaults and deaths of police officers have trended downward, just as other violent crimes have done over the past 20 years or so, yet the trend for greater protection for, and militarization of, police – at greater risk to the public – has steadily risen during the same period.
I am not a police basher. I have the greatest respect for law enforcement officers and have a number of close friends in the ranks, but it is critical that police be public servants, trained in tactics that reduce the risk to the public as well as to themselves, and that they be held accountable for their actions, both on and off the job.