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.
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.
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.