If we feel trapped in an endless cycle of police killing civilians under often complex circumstances with many people disbelieving the inevitable police assertion that the shooting was justified, we should. In fact, we are all trapped in a version of the prisoners’ dilemma. We are all, in a way, prisoners of this dilemma.
The prisoners’ dilemma is a model from game theory where the best outcome for two individuals is to cooperate with each other without knowing whether the other person will cooperate. But they both have to blindly trust that the other also will trust and cooperate –while knowing that there is a guaranteed, though lesser, reward if they don’t cooperate but rather turn against the other person.
Consider St. Louis County Police Sgt. Benjamin Granda’s comments to media about a much better possible outcome from the police interaction with Terry J. Tillman, 23, on Saturday, August 31 that would leave Tillman dead and the community protesting another police killing of another young black man. The police interaction reportedly began when a police officer approached Tillman, who was visibly carrying a firearm, to tell him no guns were allowed in the St. Louis Galleria, where Tillman was shopping.
“I wish that they would have explained the policy again to him and that he would have parted ways and then come back to have completed his shopping on a different date or time when he was not armed,” Granda told media. “But unfortunately that is not what happened.” What happened instead was that Tillman fled and, after a pursuit, police shot and killed him – claiming (inevitably) that Tillman aimed to fire at them first, which would justify the fatal shooting if true.
Granda imagined the scenario from the prisoners’ dilemma where both potential adversaries cooperate with the other, blindly trusting cooperation from the other, and both escape. In Granda’s non-fatal scenario, Tillman stops to listen to the officer, who simply explains the mall policy and then lets Tillman leave the Galleria. In this scenario, Tillman trusts that the officer won’t harass him but will simply explain the policy he is violating and let him leave. The officer, presented with no evidence that Tillman was breaking any law other than the mall policy about firearms, would trust that Tillman was breaking no other law or presenting any danger and let him leave the mall without further investigation or harassment.
So why did Tillman turn against the police officer and flee, rather than trust and cooperate? One of Tillman’s sisters, Racheal Jones, was asked this question during a vigil on Sunday. “You want to know why he ran?” Jones responded. “Ask all of these young black men.”
Young black men in St. Louis learn the hard way that, when a police officer approaches you, he is not likely to simply explain the policy he thinks you are violating and let you leave without further harassment. For example, though the police do not need to know your identity to inform you that the mall does not permit firearms, any young black man in St. Louis stopped by a police officer assumes that, at the very least, he will be directed to provide identification. And, if Ferguson taught us nothing else, it taught us that there are nearly as many outstanding arrest warrants as people in this region.
So, if Tillman had trusted the police officer to perform this one simple task, as Granda envisioned, but the police officer had gone further than explaining the mall policy and asked for identification and checked police databases, in fact he would have found an arrest warrant for Tillman. The police officer did not know this, but Tillman knew it. Also, the police officer did not know that Tillman had a felony on his record and so was committing a Class D felony by carrying the firearm he brought to the mall. Expecting the police officer would do more than explain a mall policy and politely ask Tillman to leave without asking for identification, Tillman decided he would try to outrun prison. That decision – and a police officer’s subsequent decision to shoot him – cost him his life.
We will never know the disposition of the case for which Tillman was wanted when he was killed. But one can question the wisdom of a convicted felon committing a new felony and risking a return to prison by carrying a firearm. However, in an unsafe city like St. Louis, many people, not only young black men, feel more protected when they carry firearms. The law that makes it a Class D felony for a felon to possess a firearm presents yet another dilemma for a young man like Tillman: obey the law and leave yourself unprotected, or arm yourself and risk returning to prison every time you see a police officer. It’s a law that seems almost designed to turn prison into a revolving door.
If it’s fair to ask why Tillman ran – because he did not trust the police – it’s just as fair to ask why the police officer pursued him. By leaving the mall, Tillman had stopped violating the mall policy which reportedly was the police officer’s only concern in stopping Tillman. One might argue that the officer’s job had been made even easier by Tillman, who stopped breaking the mall policy before it was even explained to him.
Granda was asked this question – why did the cop pursue him? – at a press conference on Tuesday. “It’s 2019,” Granda said. “Any reasonable person that sees an extended magazine protruding from someone, especially in a law enforcement capacity, has an obligation to contact that individual and investigate. I will give you a couple days to turn on your evening news, look nationally, and see if we have any mass shootings.”
By this reasoning, even Granda admits his fantasy of mutual cooperation between the young man black man and the police officer was only a fantasy. Though firearms are generally legal in Missouri except where posted, the officer was going to do more than explain the mall policy to the young man with the firearm. He was going to “investigate.” Tillman knew that, as any young black man in St. Louis knows it. He has learned that to cooperate with a police officer while blindly accepting cooperation in return is not a rational strategy. Of course, neither is fleeing an armed agent of the law, knowing that he will pursue you and quite possibly kill you. That’s why it’s called a dilemma – and why we are all imprisoned in it.