When the Capitol Hill riot — or the “insurrection” as the mainstream media like to refer to it — took place on January 6th, conservatives questioned why Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed. Babbitt was a veteran who was unarmed and was shot to death by Capitol Police Lt. Michael Byrd.
Up until now, I have given the unidentified officer the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he thought she had a gun. Maybe he thought she had a knife or another type of weapon. But in an interview with NBC last week, officer Byrd explained his thought process. And none of his explanation talked about Babbitt wielding a firearm, baseball bat, or any other item that could be construed as a weapon.
As POLITICO noted:
“I know that day I saved countless lives,” Byrd told the network. “I know members of Congress, as well as my fellow officers and staff, were in jeopardy and in serious danger. And that’s my job.”
The officer’s identity had been unknown until Thursday, even after he was internally cleared of wrongdoing. The Capitol Police had declined to identify Byrd, who is Black and went into hiding for months because of death threats and racist threats against him and his family.
Byrd, a 28-year veteran of the force, described how he yelled at rioters to tell them to stop before they entered the Speaker’s Lobby outside the House chamber. Officers had barricaded the doors with furniture and told rioters not to enter, but some smashed glass in the doors and tried to climb through. Babbitt was shot as she tried to climb through the barricaded door.
As Byrd saw it, he was part of the last line of defense between members of Congress and rioters who could harm them.
“If they get through that door, they’re into the House chamber and upon the members of Congress,” he told NBC. Babbitt had been “posing a threat to the United States House of Representatives,“ he said. He hoped his commands to stop would have been heeded, but “unfortunately they were not.“
Law professor Jonathan Turley noted something important about Byrd’s remarks in a recent opinion piece for The Hill:
Of all of the lines from Byrd, this one stands out: “I could not fully see her hands or what was in the backpack or what the intentions are.” So, Byrd admitted he did not see a weapon or an immediate threat from Babbitt beyond her trying to enter through the window. Nevertheless, Byrd boasted, “I know that day I saved countless lives.” He ignored that Babbitt was the one person killed during the riot. (Two protesters died of natural causes and a third from an amphetamine overdose; one police officer died the next day from natural causes, and four officers have committed suicide since then.) No other officers facing similar threats shot anyone in any other part of the Capitol, even those who were attacked by rioters armed with clubs or other objects.
This shooting was absolutely unjustified under any rules of the use of force by law enforcement officers. Was Babbitt breaking the law? Yes. She was clearly trespassing. That infraction carries a $1,000 fine, not a death sentence.
What took place in this situation is a textbook example of what not to do in multiple ways.
- Officers are taught to eliminate a threat once one is detected. Eliminate means kill if necessary. But, in this case, officer Byrd assumed Babbitt was a threat. He didn’t see a weapon. She wasn’t making any threats. She was breaking through a barrier. That’s it. Should the cops have been on guard? Absolutely. Should the officer have assumed she would hurt or kill someone if she came through the barrier? Absolutely not. If that was the case, not a single person who broke into the Capitol would have made it out alive and almost any reason would be considered a justifiable use of deadly force.
- Babbitt was the only person to die on January 6th, indicating officer Byrd made a decision based on fear and emotion, not logic and training. This is a prime indicator that Byrd went rogue in his decision to open fire. If his decision to pull the trigger was based on training, other officers would have had the same response.
- Following the shooting, the Capitol Police engaged in politics when this shouldn’t have been political. The agency was more focused on covering up Officer Byrd’s wrongdoing than they were on determining and reporting what happened. They had absolutely no desire for a full investigation. Imagine how different the reaction of the police and media would have been to a cop shooting an unarmed protester on the street in, say, Portland or New York.
Byrd panicked and pulled the trigger. He shot and killed a woman who presented no clear threat to him or anyone else in the Capitol that day. And the Department of Justice turning a blind eye to clear misconduct on Byrd’s part does nothing to resolving the question of why she was shot and killed.
As Turley wrote . . .
The DOJ report did not read like any post-shooting review I have read as a criminal defense attorney or law professor. The DOJ statement notably does not say that the shooting was clearly justified. Instead, it stressed that “prosecutors would have to prove not only that the officer used force that was constitutionally unreasonable, but that the officer did so ‘willfully.’” It seemed simply to shrug and say that the DOJ did not believe it could prove “a bad purpose to disregard the law” and that “evidence that an officer acted out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgment cannot establish the high level of intent.”
Officer Byrd no longer has the benefit of the doubt. His rehearsed justifications recited before friendly media do nothing to explain why an unarmed woman was killed. The Babbitt family has threatened a wrongful death lawsuit. That may be the only way now for anyone to be held to account.