Police Use of Deadly Force: Time for Discussion

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It was difficult to read in national newspapers like The New York Times that Madison, Wisc. was being linked to questionable police behaviors in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and Albuquerque.

What’s going on in America? Is this the result of 9/11 and years of war? The proliferation of handguns and castle defense doctrines? I wonder. Nevertheless, we now appear to have a system of using deadly force in many of our nation’s police departments that needs to be changed.

Fixing this system will not be accomplished by investigating and charging bad cops or criminals after the fact. It can only be fixed by looking at how police are trained and led. My analysis is that it is the system that needs fixing and we are fooling ourselves if we look at these incidents singularly and not as a collective example of things gone terribly wrong and in need of immediate repair.

I have to add here that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Graham v. Connor has a lot to do with this problem. Their decision effectively permitted a police officer to legally use deadly force based on whether the officer reasonably believed his or her life was in danger; called “reasonable  objectiveness.” Before this decision, officers were expected to use only the minimum amount of force necessary to overcome resistance. Add to this decision the fear every police officer has that he or she could be disarmed and shot you have a “perfect storm” of police using deadly force in almost any situation involving resistance.

Historically, this is not new ground for police leaders. Just because an act is legal, it may not  necessarily be moral. And that’s where leadership comes in. Leaders set the moral standard for police conduct in these situations.

In the past, when it was legal for police to use deadly force to stop any felon (even for a property crime) we in Madison said, no — police shall only use deadly force only to stop fleeing felons who are an immediate physical danger to others. We did that because it was the moral thing to do. Years later, that policy became the law of the land in Garner v. Tennessee.

Now is the time we must ask questions about the policies surrounding the use of deadly force, how police are trained and lead, their attitudes surrounding the taking  of a life, and what they are going to do to assure their communities that this will cease; that is, their moral duty?

The recent presidential task force on policing had the following to say about policy and training with regard to deadly force. These are three of the more than sixty recommendations they made and they apply to what I am talking about — they are about attitude, developing new technology, and better tactics and procedures; especially when handling the disturbed, addicted, or mentally ill:

  • Police culture should embrace a guardian mindset [as opposed to a “warrior” mindset] to guide their interactions with the citizens they serve (Recommendation 1.1).
  • Support the development of new “less than lethal” technology [example: “smart guns” for police] to help control combative suspects (Recommendation 3.6)
  • Police department policies and training on use of force should emphasize de-escalation and alternatives to arrest or summons. (Recommendation 2.2.1).

Three earlier posts of mine have addressed these problems. I also share here what I provided President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force.

This should be the beginning of an honest and forthright community discussion on solving a situation that should no longer be tolerated in America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11 Comments

  1. “In the past, when it was legal for police to use deadly force to stop any felon (even for a property crime) we in Madison said, no — police shall only use deadly force only to stop fleeing felons who are an immediate physical danger to others. We did that because it was the moral thing to do. Years later, that policy became the law of the land in Garner v. Tennessee.” thank you for this description. it has always concerned me… my mentor as a young teacher was killed the week after she retired; it was a Sunday and a young man in a car was being chased by police and my friend Mary was killed in her own car by getting in the way I guess. Working with students it was important to me that we think of property rights as important but that they not trump rights of individual people if they were our youngest students that some kind of restitution should be made and there were consequences but not in the extreme … i’m not phrasing this well but I think you get my idea…. I’ve also been thinking about my friends who are nurses and I know many of them say they have to do a rotation ; if they have been working in intensive care with young children who are severely ill they need to have a 6 month rotation to a different department. Does that occur for police personnel? I know my niece is married to a detective in CA and another niece in NY City has an in law who is a detective and I feel their work is very intense… for any duration of time, it must be difficult. In teaching they blame the teacher “a burnt out” teacher puts the onus on the individual where as there are systemic issues as well.

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    1. I have a daughter in law who is a nurse. Yes, both police and nursing have what are called “crispy critters;” those burned out. Mental ill issues are prominent in those who care for others… the president’s task force has called for annual physical and mental health checks for our nation’s police. A good idea.

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      1. I was also implying that there are aspects of the system that “burn out” good people….. it is not a good way to look at stress syndrome and call a person “burned out” because that doesn’t recognize what needs to be fixed in a toxic system

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  2. “I have to add here that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Graham v. Connor has a lot to do with this problem. Their decision effectively permitted a police officer to legally use deadly force based on whether the officer reasonably believed his or her life was in danger; called “reasonable objectiveness.” Before this decision, officers were expected to use only the minimum amount of force necessary to overcome resistance.”

    I think you may be mistaken about the state of the law prior to Graham. See, e.g., Brown v. United States (1921): “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife. Therefore, in this Court, at least, it is not a condition of immunity that one in that situation should pause to consider whether a reasonable man might not think it possible to fly with safety or to disable his assailant rather than to kill him.”

    Or are you perhaps referring to later caselaw which modified the holding in Brown?

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    1. Thanks for the comments. When I was talking about state of things before Graham v. Connor I was referring not to what the law permitted, but what our policy required. I have always been in the camp of those who strongly supported rulemaking (policy) by police to clarify the law and even to set a higher standard — which is what I argue for today; that is, police must develop rules for protecting lives that is HIGHER than that set by the courts.

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