The Post-Ferguson Trade-Off: Whose Life Is Worth Saving?

A constant reference here is the First Rule of Policing: make it home for dinner.  The rule means that in any situation in which a police officer fears for his safety, he will neutralize the threat. That means kill, if necessary.  Whether it’s necessary is a consideration to ponder later.

Whether there is something worthy of fear, or the mere anticipation of something that may be potentially fearful or threatening, is a matter of the cop’s sensitivities. Some are more easily scared than others.  Some have a very low threshold of fear. Very low.

But when a police officer can express an objectively reasonable basis to believe he was in fear of death or serious harm, he can kill with, essentially, impunity. And pretty much any cop can make the case, with little more than “he reached for his waistband.” Because we give police the benefit of the doubt as to the truthfulness of their claim, and in the absence of countervailing evidence that strongly, if not conclusively, proves them lying, that’s all it takes for a cop to kill.

In an unusually relevant Room for Debate, the New York Times explores whether this standard is too low, allowing cops to escape responsibility for the needless or wrongful killing of people,  or whether police are subject to undue criticism for protecting themselves from harm.  Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist from Carnegie Mellon, offers the apologist’s view:

Given the widespread presence of guns in our streets, it’s not surprising that we are seeing an increasing number of shootings involving police. Some of the shootings target police and some of those shootings are carried out by police.

Inevitably, the shootings by police will involve a claim that the officer saw a threat to his physical well-being or even to his life. It could well be that he overestimated the threat when it was later found that the person was unarmed, was mentally ill or was reaching in his pocket for something other than a weapon, but it is too easy to challenge those calls in hindsight. Also, such cases should be judged in the context of 27 police officers killed in 2013 (all but one with a handgun) and 49 in 2012, so policing is not without its own risks.

Of course, if Blumstein had a sincere interest in context, he would note how many people were killed by police in the same time period, or how many sanitation workers died, or how many cops were killed in automobile accidents caused by their own negligence, or how many bystanders were shot by police, or how many people were run down by cops, or . . . well, you get the point.

Framing the issue in terms of the righteous shoot, however, misses the point. Former public defender, now monitoring LAPD shootings, Walter Katz, starts down that path, but takes an important turn:

Since officers have to make split-second decisions in circumstances where they can be killed — as were 76 officers in 2013 — they are given broad deference. But the cost is many unnecessary deaths.

Indeed, that’s the problem. It isn’t that police should be put at risk, or shouldn’t be capable of making decisions to protect their lives, but the associated cost in needless, unjustified deaths.  Walter offers systemic solutions:

To reduce those deaths, in the face of a difficult legal standard, police have to do a better job hiring top flight recruits who are great decision-makers, train them to de-escalate hostile situations and use force when necessary. All investigations of police homicides should be surrendered to an outside independent agency.

Edit: Chase Madar at The Nation offers a strong “legal realist” discussion of the ineffectiveness of well-intended systemic reforms, as Walter suggests, like Civilian Complaint Review Boards, just don’t pan out.  I add that similarly well-intended people who take a position on such boards tend to be co-opted by those they are supposed to oversee.

Feminist Majority executive director Katherine Spillar argues that we wouldn’t have this problem with women cops:

Research conducted nationally and internationally for more than four decades has found that women police officers not only do their jobs as well as men, but are less authoritarian, use force less often, communicate better and are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations than their male counterparts.

From the Center for Constitutional Rights, Vincent Warren raises the 800 lb. gorilla in the room:

Yes, more officers should be held accountable for killing unarmed young men, but it isn’t a few bad apples, it’s the way that police are trained to see communities of color as war zones and to behave like occupying forces. In his testimony, Wilson called the neighborhood a “hostile environment” and told the grand jury, “it is just not a very well-liked community.”

Following on this, ex-cop Seth Stoughton makes no apologies for cops:

As a rookie police officer, I was given a pair of handcuffs to detain people, chemical spray and a baton to physically enforce my commands and a gun that I could have used to kill someone.

But most important was the badge I was given, signifying the ultimate source of my authority: the trust of the community I served.

Rather than make excuses for killings, it took an ex-cop to unabashedly assert that police should be held to a higher standard.

Our legal system has the obligation to ensure that they exercise their authority appropriately. Police officers wield enormous authority, and we should hold them to a correspondingly high standard.

The law puts a level of trust and discretion in police that has fed a culture of acting with impunity, whether maliciously as too many videos have proven, or defensively despite that absence of legitimate fear.  The culture has created a warrior mentality, as Radley Balko pointed out so well, and deadly cynicism.

Neither hiring nor training, nor women on the job, are going to solve the needless deaths in the foreseeable future, and likely ever. But each human being needlessly killed by a cop had a right to live, to survive. Just like the cop, they have family, perhaps a spouse and children, who love them and need them. They too are entitled to make it home for dinner.

If you’re not willing to needlessly sacrifice your life for “officer safety,” don’t offer up anyone else’s life.  And if that carries the potential that a cop who hesitates to shoot may be killed, at least the cop made the choice of becoming a police officer with full knowledge of what the job entailed.  The person wrongfully killed made no similar choice.

20 thoughts on “The Post-Ferguson Trade-Off: Whose Life Is Worth Saving?

  1. Bob

    There are soldiers in military prison now for doing to Iraqi and Afghani civilians what U.S. police do to civilians with impunity in this country. These soldiers are in prison for violating rules of engagement and military law related to treatment of foreign nationals living in their own countries. The only rule of engagement pertinent to policing in the United States is that the officer gets to shoot you if he decides he’s scared of you for any reason, good, bad, or fabricated. This is no different than military occupation by a third-world failed state.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s an excellent comparison. If soldiers, fighting an enemy, can manage to restrain themselves until a threat is real, so too can police serving and protecting their fellow citizens.

      1. Bill Robelen

        How true. Every time I have been sent into a combat zone or even an environment where I will be interacting with civilians, I have been given rules of engagement. When I was doing traffic control points to enforce a curfew during a hurricane, I was given a card with rules of engagement. When I was in a combat zone doing convoy escort, I was expected to treat to locals with respect.

        1. SHG Post author

          Best way to stay alive is not to make any more enemies than you already have, and the best way to do that is treat people with respect.

          1. Bill Robelen

            That was my experience in Iraq. The culture there is very heavy on respect, and what we found was that when we showed respect to the locals, we were far less likely to get attacked.

      2. John Barleycorn

        What the hell, throw in a few check points and we are good to go?

        Who needs nation building when we can have neighborhood building…!

        It will be a long hard fought war though, seeing as how well funded the insurgents mingling in with the “civilians” in the neighborhoods are though.

        Hey, we could track their cell phones and put a few more satellites in orbit then send in one of the orbiting drones to drop some ordinance and take care of the threat.

        Think of all the new jobs, and the officer safety threshold should be meet while deploying drones from control bunkers in police stations throughout the nation.

        Did I mention the necessity and cost savings of policing and security contractors yet?

        What are we waiting for? I suggest starting with a door to door weapons sweep.

    2. J.P.


      What are or were the analogous rules of engagement and military law for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq? It’s a strong argument you make, so a little detail to flesh it out would be nice.

      1. Scott

        In the first gulf War; we needed to see a weapon in order to engage. From what i read in books, the requirements are far more strict now…As if the enemy with a gun isn’t enough!

        1. Bill Robelen

          Part of the problem there is that in some countries, weapons are even more common than in America. In Iraq, every male is allowed to own one AK-47 rifle plus ammunition. However, if I certain weapons, such as an RPG, I was free to engage because those weapons were only allowed to be carried by the local army and police. Not that I saw them carried often by them even.

      2. Vin

        The only thing that strikes me as different is that the military is at war with a common enemy, where the police are not at war, and technically are suppose to be on our side not an occupying force.

        That said, rules of engagement seem to make sense for police officers, as well as holding them to a higher standard.

        However, Having never been shot at, I tend to not assume I understand how someone should respond when a threat is perceived.

    1. SHG Post author

      I assume I’m unworthy of such prominence. The only “title” I have to offer is criminal defense lawyer, which is so terribly insignificant compared with lawprof or government official, or even former prosecutor.

  2. anonymouse

    Secret Service agents are trained to take a bullet if necessary whenever they are on duty guarding the President. They don’t shoot first, and I don’t think any agents discharged their weapon whenever Reagan got shot.

    Shouldn’t LEOs be trained to act so that shooting a civilian is the last resort, not the first?

    1. Scott

      Imagine how grand our police would be if they valued the public they served worth more than their own lives! THAT would be priceless!!

      1. SHG Post author

        To expect that level of sacrifice might push the envelope a bit too far. To expect cops not to shoot at the slightest sense of fear, on the other hand, doesn’t seem outside the realm of possible

  3. Vin

    Is it naive to think of police officers as deserving more leniency given their call to duty in protecting the average good guy from the average bad guy?

    Im asking because I sincerely don’t want to be naive and have always felt like the vast majority of cops do more good than harm.
    I don’t know where the line is or should be drawn.

    1. SHG Post author

      Most cops do, but that’s what they’re supposed to do. You don’t get a prize for doing your job, and you don’t get a pass for wrongfully killing people.

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