To shoot or not to shoot?
It's probably the toughest decision a cop has to face.
Take the case of Yang Wei. He was the berserk fellow who ran off with a heavy truck on the morning of April 18 on the Badaling Expressway in Beijing.
Yang was soon barreling down the expressway with the vehicle, slamming into more than 20 cars during his high-speed adventure. Soon, dozens of Beijing police vehicles were giving chase.
In the chaos, Yang injured a total of eight people. Finally, police surrounded the young man after he ploughed the truck into the back of a bus. It was a miracle nobody was killed in the escapade.
But describing it like that makes it sound a bit comical, doesn't it? Well, there's nothing funny about a man driving a truck weighing several tons down an expressway in the wrong direction. It is a deadly weapon - worse than a machine gun, worse than cannon, even a small bomb.
A few years ago, as a crime reporter in a Southern California city, I gained the distinction of covering a similar story, involving another man who had gone insane. He used a large vehicle to vent his rage, an Army tank he'd stolen from an armoury. All 25 tons or so of it rolled down city streets, with a retinue of police officers in cars and helicopters following behind, unable to do anything to stop it as it did untold damage.
Finally, only an officer who'd been in the military and had thankfully done tank duty, was able to open the tank's hatch after it stalled on the freeway. Otherwise, there would have been no stopping the fellow until his tank had run out of petrol. As it was, the tank did hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to dozens of properties, cars, motor homes, traffic lights and the road itself.
Another miracle: no one was killed. Except the driver of the tank. He refused to obey police orders to come out. Officers shot him dead.
Now, back to our Chinese caper.
Mr. Yang, doing his best to imitate our American, came up with the weapon he had available: a truck. He decided, as some young men do when they go crazy, to take it out on the world.
When Yang was finally stopped, police doing their best to restore public safety screamed orders to Yang to lift his hands from the truck steering wheel and to place them behind his head. He ignored the officers.
In fact, Yang furtively reached for a bag beside him. Officers, not knowing for sure what the fellow was up to, shot and killed him.
Did they do wrong? This is now the question readers and pontificating academics are asking in print.
"To judge whether shooting Yang dead was lawful, the key is to see whether he was committing criminal activity threatening other people's personal safety," said one such armchair police chief, Ma Dengmin, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law.
Ma argues that when the truck stopped, the activity endangering the public had "come to an end" and the police "under such conditions" should have captured him. Even though Yang was reaching for something from a bag, this act did not pose a threat to the policemen's safety.
Sorry, chief -er, professor - but that's nonsense.
First, the officers were on the ground. Yang was several feet above them in the truck's cab. They would have had to have had X-ray vision. Not only that, they would need to have been certain of just what was in the bag.
How exactly would they determine that in the seconds it takes for a man to grab a gun? Or, a grenade? Or, to trigger a switch to detonate the bomb he's placed in the back of the truck to blow it and the bus he's just rammed (along with the police officers) off the face of the earth?
A few other critics ask why the cops did not just shoot to maim Yang, rather than to kill him.
I presume none of them has been trained in the art of marksmanship - which, I add humbly, I have. Shooting with a hand gun is no science. If you are just a millimetre or two off in your aim, you will hit a building a block away, perhaps killing an innocent and not maiming the person at whom you are aiming. It's that simple, despite what Hollywood would have you believe. Honest.
Now, this is not to say I am for killing suspects in violent crimes willy-nilly. I am not.
In many cases, deadly force is not necessary. Every armed law enforcement officer in China ought to be trained and equipped with alternative force, too.
Options exist on the market, such as guns that shoot disabling "bean bags", capable of temporarily knocking suspects down, but not killing them. There also are rubber bullets that will disable a suspect. Electrically powered "stun" guns exist that deliver a high-powered charge into suspects, paralyzing individuals for a short period so officers can control them.
But I'm afraid nothing short of shooting Yang Wei could have stopped the young man from the task he'd appointed himself on April 18.
Lacking the necessary courage to kill himself, and possessing a misplaced desire for recognition, he was asking for what has become known as Police-Assisted Suicide. Beijing's finest delivered.
I'd say it was well worth the cost of a few bullets.