Police Use of Deadly Force: Time for Discussion


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.