The floor of the United States Capitol was stained with blood earlier this month when a violent mob forced its way inside while both chambers of Congress were in session to certify the results of the presidential election. In the ensuing clash between rioters and police, an officer shot and killed Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran, as she and others tried to force their way through the smashed window of a barricaded hallway door.
The officer’s actions are now under investigation, which is standard protocol following any use of deadly force. Having reviewed the videos of the shooting, I believe the officer’s action were justified.
Nerves are frayed right now and emotions are raw. That is precisely why the analysis of Babbitt’s death needs to be fact-based, level-headed, and conducted under the same objective standards as any other police use of deadly force.
Unfortunately, this is not happening in some circles. Many people are reflexively deeming Ashli Babbitt’s death a “murder,” or claiming she was gunned down by an overzealous cop.
No doubt, the shooting of Babbitt is tragic. But we need to consider the reasonable legal standard for the justifiable use of force.
As I explained after the Jacob Blake shooting last year, and maintain now, the actions of civilians in these police-involved shootings play a significant role in how officers perceive threat levels. By all accounts, Babbitt—like Blake—took a series of regrettable actions that caused her to be reasonably perceived by the officer as an imminent violent threat.
There are two primary video recordings of Babbitt’s death, taken from different angles. Between the two videos and other eyewitness accounts, one can recreate a very coherent and clear timeline of the events leading to the shooting.
But first, it is important to understand the broader context of what was happening when this shooting occurred. These were some of the first chaotic minutes after a riotous mob of thousands of angry agitators forced its way into the Capitol with almost the entire continuity of the United States government inside – should something happen to the president, the order of succession would be the vice president, the House speaker, and the president pro tempore of the Senate, all three of whom were barricaded inside the Capitol. The Washington Post’s account of these first minutes give us a much-needed sense of the sheer scale of the threat this mob posed.
While some were simply walking in, others were violently attacking law enforcement officers with pipes, chemical irritants, fire extinguishers, and really anything they could find. About an hour earlier, police had discovered functional pipe bombs on Capitol grounds.
The Capitol was placed in lockdown and emergency text alerts warned everyone inside to seek shelter in barricaded offices if possible. Just minutes before, the vice president had been evacuated, even as some rioters began chants of “Hang Mike Pence, Hang Mike Pence.” Others in the mob shouted, “Where’s Nancy? Where’s Nancy?” menacingly referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Many lawmakers and their staff members were forced to shelter in place, barricading themselves behind locked office doors.
Babbitt was among the first rioters to enter the Capitol. She and others with her made their way down to just outside the Speaker’s Lobby on the House side of the building. The doorway to the Speaker’s Lobby—a long hallway directly outside of the House chamber—had been locked and barricaded with furniture to prevent the mob’s entrance. Behind that door were members of Congress and their staff, with nowhere to run, waiting to be evacuated out another side of the House chamber.
This is where the videos pick up. (Warning: These videos show a violent act and may be disturbing to some people).
The videos show that a group of roughly two dozen people were attempting to breach the barricaded door. They had already smashed out several of the windows. People in the crowd shout at Babbitt and others to “bust down” the door. The man taking the video warned officers behind the door that “They’re going to push their way up here. Bro, I’ve seen people out there get hurt. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
A plainclothes officer takes a tactical position just inside the barricade, half-concealed behind a door frame but with his gun clearly drawn on the rioters.Various eyewitnesses have said that the officers repeatedly warned the mob to “get back” and “get down.”
Babbitt nevertheless tried to pull herself through the busted out window. As she was in the process of doing so, the officer inside the barricade fired a single shot that appeared to strike her in the neck.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., who was behind the barricade and witnessed the shooting, has since come forward publicly to say that he believes the officer’s action saved lives.
There are, of course, those who insist that because Babbitt turned out to be unarmed, the shooting was ipso facto unjustified.
However, justification for the use of deadly force is based primarily on whether a reasonable person would fear imminent serious bodily harm to himself or others under the circumstances.
Put yourself in the shoes of the officer guarding that door.
The Capitol is under lockdown, besieged by a very angry mob whose intentions could reasonably be interpreted as a desire to harm members of Congress—the people you have a sworn duty to protect. You have no idea if these rioters are armed, or with what weapons. They did not exactly go through rigorous security checkpoints to get here. You know pipe bombs were earlier found nearby.
You have barricaded a door to House Speaker’s Lobby, which leads directly to the House floor where congressmen and their staff members are awaiting evacuation. You draw your firearm as rioters begin smashing the door windows, and warn them repeatedly to stand down. They can clearly see that you have your gun drawn on them.
One of the rioters begins pushing herself through a busted window, with an unknown number of rioters behind her, some of them shouting, “Bust it down.”
These are the circumstances faced by the officer who shot Babbitt. A reasonable law enforcement officer—especially one tasked with protecting the people on the other side of that door—would perceive Babbitt’s attempted breach of the barricade as posing an imminent threat of violence to elected officials.
We routinely highlight civilian defensive gun use stories where homeowners shoot intruders who persist on their break-in attempts despite being warned that the homeowner will shoot them if they enter the premises. This shooting, given the national security implications, is arguably more justified than these civilian shootings.
We should demand of ourselves a consistent set of standards for analyzing the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers, regardless of any other personal thoughts we might have on the circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force on that particular occasion.
Like so many others injured or killed in high-profile police shootings, Babbitt wasn’t shot because of her race, gender, or political ideology. She was shot because she took a series of criminal actions that caused her to be reasonably perceived as a violent threat.
She joined a riotous mob that stormed the Capitol while the entire continuity of government was inside, creating a national security threat. She and others reached a barricade within a stone’s throw of sitting members of Congress, and attempted to breach it despite clear police orders to stand down. An officer drew his gun on her and warned her that he would shoot her if she came through the door. She ignored this warning and actively attempted to breach the door anyway.
I am heartbroken that a woman was killed just steps from the House floor. I am horrified that a military veteran made some very bad decisions and died while participating in a forcible attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of a democratic election.
But none of this affects the standard of review applied to her death, or the judgment of wrongdoing.
The term Speaker’s Lobby has been corrected in this article.