Just Because We Can, Should We?

Just Because We Can, Should We?

The Legal-Moral Balance of Policing

images 9An all too familiar story from one of our large, urban cities:

On November 29, in the early morning hours, Cleveland police gave chase to a speeding car that one officer thought had discharged a firearm. During the chase one or more other officers broadcasted that occupants of the fleeing vehicle had fired a weapon at them.  Soon a dozen or more police officers were in pursuit. It seems that at one point supervisors gave orders to terminate the pursuit.

The car finally stopped in East Cleveland after a 25 minute chase. And, according to reports, after stopping, the driver tried to or drove into a police car. In response, over 100 shots were fired by police officers at the scene into the man’s vehicle resulting in his death and the death of his female passenger — each was shot more than 20 times. The victims were black and the officers were Caucasian. So far, investigators were not able to find of a firearm or shell casings in the car. Forensic tests will, most likely, be able to determine whether the victims had fired a weapon.

Needless to say, the minority community is outraged by this incident and the police will have some work to do to try and restore trust and confidence from the community.

[Note: this event most likely will be called a “deadly force situation” by both the police and district attorney’s investigations. One of more officers will no doubt testify that they felt their lives and the lives of their fellow officers were endangered by what they believed to be an “assault by vehicle” which caused them to discharged their firearms] 

However, shootings like these call into question a major issue in policing that goes beyond determining whether an act was legal or not – and the issue is this: Just because it’s legal, is it moral? That is, was it the right thing to do?

In these instances, the community affected will most likely not support the legality of this. Instead, they will be focused at a higher level – was this a moral act or not? Why did so many police officers shoot? Were there not other things the police could have done rather than kill the driver and the passenger? And what about the passenger? What did she do to deserve death?

These are the questions and considerations that police leaders need to take into account when policies are drawn up, training curricula developed, standards of performance set, and the physical, spiritual and moral development of their officers.

A local journalist, Regina Brett, a reporter with The Plain Dealer wrote the following in response to the shooting,

“A measured response. That’s what was called for. Instead, two people are dead… There are more questions than bullets fired. The first question that comes to mind is, What in the world happened?… 

“We need to find out if there was a breakdown in communication, in following orders, in training. Did they follow the rules on use of force? On police pursuits? It’s too soon to defend or praise the police officers. It’s too soon to vilify them and call for their dismissal. It’s too soon to make judgments about what exactly happened. 

“We need more information. Once we have it, a measured response is called for. One that is fair to the families of the victims, the community, the Cleveland Police Department and all the officers involved. 

“A measured response. That’s what we need now. That’s what we needed then.” [For the entire article, CLICK HERE.]


Interesting comments from police reporter who wrote that she, herself, had been in a police car during a chase a number of years ago – a “measured response,” she wrote, is called for.

The specific, and, perhaps, underlying question before us today is this:

How do we train and prepare our police to not merely follow the statutes in their daily work, but also to do so in a measured and moral way?

A number of years ago, when I was chief in Madison, Wisc. we severely limited police pursuits – we did this by allowing field supervisors to terminate a chase if it was too dangerous. Whether to chase or not was no longer the officer’s decision to make and, therefore, did not make him or her out to be timid (or cowardly) in these matters. We did not permit a firearm to be fired from a police vehicle.

After all, in the majority of these fleeing vehicle cases we are talking about misdemeanors, not felonies. And although a speeding, out-of-control vehicle is dangerous to everyone’s safety, police pursuit does not always make the situation safer. These are difficult, moral choices to make.

But what we can do is assure that our police are well-educated and trained, understand the legality and morality of their acts regarding the use of force, are honest and accountable in their conduct, and respectful to everyone they encounter.  When we can assure that we have done the best in selecting, training and leading our police, then we will rest easier when they are faced with legal-moral dilemmas such as this one.

For more about improving police take a look at my new book, “Arrested Development.”  CLICK HERE.


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