Byrd v. Babbitt: Beliefs and Expectations, Reasonable and Unreasonable

Tear gas outside the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021. Photo by Tyler Merbler. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

More than seven months after the fatal shooting of Ashli Babbitt during the January 6 riot, the Capitol Police Department officer who shot her is speaking out. “I know that day I saved countless lives,” Lt. Michael Byrd tells NBC News’s Lester Holt.a

Maybe he’s right, maybe not, but he’s going farther than he has to go. The standard for use of deadly force — not just in the Capitol Police Department but generally — is not certain knowledge but rather, as the department’s policy puts it, a reasonable belief that said use of force “is in the defense of human life, including the officer’s own life, or in the defense of any person in immediate danger of serious physical injury.”

Did Byrd’s actions meet that standard? The events of the day, and the video record of the shooting, say yes.

Even setting aside the question of whether the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” as many Trump supporters believe, and the bizarre theories of “QAnon,” with which she seems to have been affiliated, the story of Babbitt’s death is a story of reasonable versus unreasonable beliefs.

It was unreasonable for Babbitt — especially given her description in online biographies as a 14-year Air Force veteran and former security guard at a nuclear power plant — to believe that she and the mob she joined could walk into the US Capitol and violently prevent Congress’s certification of the election without armed Capitol Police officers contesting the matter.

It was even more unreasonable for Babbitt to believe that when her fellow rioters began smashing the windows of the barricaded doors to the Speaker’s Lobby, and that when she attempted to crawl through one of those windows, the armed officers charged with protecting Congress wouldn’t respond with deadly force. Frankly it’s surprising that they didn’t do so as soon as the window-smashing began.

On the other hand, whether or not one likes the Capitol Police, or Lt. Byrd, or Congress, or the outcome of the election, it was entirely — and obviously — reasonable for Lt. Byrd to believe that members of a mob attempting to force their way through those barricaded doors represented a danger of “immediate danger of serious physical injury” or even death to himself and those he guarded.

Ashli Babbitt is neither a martyr nor an innocent victim of police abuse (of which there are far too many). She willingly joined a violent mob. She willingly took part in that mob’s violent actions. She willingly went an extra foot or two beyond the actions of most of that mob’s members. And that extra foot or two was fatal.

Had Ashli Babbitt not put her unreasonable beliefs into motion against Michael Byrd’s reasonable beliefs, she’d almost certainly still be alive.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

Originally published at https://thegarrisoncenter.org on August 27, 2021.