One day in the life of a city in the Midwest, a young man was shot. Throughout the years, this had been a peaceful city and its police department enjoyed great trust and respect in the community; even among the poor and people of color. Few people had been shot by police. The few that had were usually involved in a serious crime and there was little public concerns about their deaths.
This time it appeared to be different. The man who was shot was a young white man, small of stature, educated, and lived in a liberal, middle class neighborhood. He was not a bad man. Yes, he had been drinking and he did not follow the orders of the police who were sent to what they believed was residential burglary in progress around 3 o’clock in the morning.
Three days later, the police chief held a press conference and described what he believed had happened. The man who was shot was walking home from a local bar. He recently moved to the neighborhood and apparently entered the wrong house (one of the occupants had inadvertently left a key in their front door lock). When one of the residents heard the man enter, they called police. Within minutes, the first officer arrived. He said he saw two men struggling in the front yard. He ordered both of them to “get down.” The homeowner complied but the other man did not. Instead, he approached the officer and attempted to grab the officer’s gun. Three shots were fired from a distance of 3-4 feet hitting the man in the chest and instantly killing him. A second officer arrived on the scene just as the man was shot. The chief said it was “a deadly force situation.”
As the facts unfolded, many people in the city questioned the actions of the police officer. The police union came to the officer’s defense explaining this was a deadly situation and a citizen should never try to disarm a police officer without suffering serious consequences. The officer involved is on the union board of directors and was a 15 year veteran.
The parents of the man, who also lived in the city, retained a prominent civil rights attorney to represent them. The couple who reported the incident also retained legal representation.
Approximately six weeks later, the district attorney concluded, after reviewing the case, that the officer was reasonably in fear for his life and, therefore, justified in using deadly force. He described the situation just prior to the shooting: “The man came at [the officer] rapidly, grabbed his outstretched left hand with one hand, and reached across his body toward his gun with the other.” He also revealed the deceased man was intoxicated (.208 percent blood alcohol).
Now the next step rests with the city’s police chief. What does he do? For he is on the “horns of a dilemma.” The district attorney has now legally exonerated the officer. Now the chief will have to decide whether the officer violated any department rules during the incident.
The authority to fire a police officer, however, does not rest with the police chief but rather in an appointed of police commissioners under the laws of the state. The chief can take other forms of discipline such as suspension without pay, but the decision to fire a police officer is in the hands of this commission.
The department’s policy manual with regard to using deadly force reads as follows:
“Recognizing our legal and moral obligation to use force wisely and judiciously, it is the policy of this department that deadly force will never be resorted to unless an officer reasonably believes that a lesser degree of force would be insufficient to defend the life of another, one’s self, or in limited situations, to apprehend a dangerous felon, or control an animal.”
If the chief takes no action toward the officer (who has two prior use of force complaints) there will be a strong reaction from the community asking questions such as these: “Aren’t police officers trained to use techniques in these situations short of deadly force?” “Should I be worried now that if I call the police to handle a disturbance, someone may be shot and killed?” “What if this was my teenage son who got drunk and acted this way? Would the police shoot him, too?”
On the other hand, if the chief finds the officer violated department rules and disciplines him, there will also be a strong reaction from within the ranks of the police department and from some members of the community. They will ask these questions: “You mean that if someone reasonably threatens to take an officer‘s life, he or she cannot use deadly force for protection?” “Police have a difficult job to do, and if this man had complied with the officer’s order to stand down, would this have happened — isn’t this the suspect’s fault?” “Do you think it’s fair to discipline police officers when they are lawfully protecting their life or ours?”
If YOU were the chief of police, WHAT would you do and WHY would you do it?
Then, what would you do to address those who would DISAGREE with your decision?