The Police Pushback on Use of Deadly Force
We are about to engage in a major community-police struggle. A struggle which will occur for most of the coming decade. As I begin, four of Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing echo within me:
- The ability of police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval and respect.
- Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public…
- As police use physical force, public cooperation diminishes proportionately…
- Police are the public and the public are the police…
In a March 12, 2016 article on line at the “Law Officer” website, a senior police commander takes on PERF’s “30 Guiding Principles” and the USSC’s decision in Graham v. Connor. His arguments against reform are as follows and should be familiar to everyone, police and community, who are interested in reducing the incidents of deadly force use by our nation’s police officers.
He begins with the title of his argument, “LAPD Reform: The Beginning of the End.”
- “The call last Friday by two Los Angeles Police Commissioners to significantly change LAPD use of force policy is both dangerous and not the first time law enforcement will hear these demands. Whether agencies and leaders cave in to these short sighted and dangerous demands will determine if law enforcement will be capable of protecting themselves and the public for years to come… The recommendation for LAPD to specifically evaluate whether officers could have done more to defuse tense encounters and to seek ways to avoid using significant force whenever possible sounds great on paper but is a dangerous and deadly road to disaster for law enforcement that follows it…”
My response: Is it? Is defusing and de-escalating potential deadly force incidents – especially those involving edged or blunt weapons a “dangerous and deadly road to disaster?” I think not. As a veteran police officer and leader, the cautious use of deadly force was for many of us the rule of engagement. He goes on,
- “While it sounds and feels good, those requirements are not part of the signature Supreme Court Case that governs every use of force encounter in American Law Enforcement, Graham v. Connor (1989) and there are real reasons the court didn’t address it. Those demands place additional disadvantages on the police officer having to make a ‘split second’ decision for their life…”
My response: That is true. The new guidelines of which we speak is not part of the Graham v. Connor case, nor should they be. Graham v. Connor addresses whether or not a police officer should be criminally or civilly liable for their actions when they fear for their lives – the “objective reasonableness” standard.
What reform leaders – both in the police ranks and within the community – are saying is that they want to create a better, a higher, standard for their police agencies. This is not any different than when police leaders in the 1970s implemented a higher standard with regard to the use of deadly force against fleeing criminals. While most state laws permitted police to use deadly force to stop ANY fleeing felon, progressive police leaders said no. Instead, we issued policies and conducted training based on the premise that we would use deadly force ONLY to stop fleeing and dangerous FELONS. What is different today when progressive leaders choose to issue a standard that is higher than Graham?
- “Every police officer in America should be thankful that grand juries have to follow the law and not what politicians think…”
My response: That is also true when it comes to putting police officers in prison for use of deadly force in situations in which they found themselves tactically vulnerable and deathly afraid. But what I am talking about is how police are taught and led regarding when and where their department wants them to use deadly force. It’s a big difference.
- “Despite the United States Supreme Court, there is a large attempt to change the rules. It started with Ferguson and PERF quickly picked up the mantle. The Michael Brown incident should have never occurred PERF surmised. Yes, Brown was walking in the middle of the street after committing a violent robbery and yes Officer Darren Wilson drove up to him (not knowing the robbery occurred) and asked him to get out of the roadway which caused Brown to attack Wilson and the ensuing altercation would end in the use of deadly force…”
My response: Come on now. A well-trained and led police officer simply would not have responded to Brown and his partner in the way Wilson did. I can recall numerous incidents during civil rights disturbances when I was called to similar events – black youth walking down the street and not choosing to use the sidewalk. Why not park your squad, get out and talk respectfully with them? Assess the situation and decided whether or not enforcement action is necessary. Did Wilson follow the tenets of Procedural Justice? I am as concerned about Wilson’s actions as I am about his training and the actions of his leaders.
- “Some are reading this and you think, this will never happen in my agency. I will warn you about that thinking. The playbook is already there and the players are lining up. The White House, PERF, DOJ and some major city chiefs are on the team now and they are recruiting and once they grab CALEA or IACP, common sense will be lost. There will be significant pressure on agencies and leaders to modify use of force policy despite the courts not supporting that change… The Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant is just one funding mechanism and it awards close to 300 million dollars a year to law enforcement agencies. I know agencies that wouldn’t have basic equipment if it wasn’t for this grant..”
My response: That is true. That is how reform will most likely come about. But the reason is not to make policing more difficult, but to make it more effective (by building community trust and support) and my making the job of policing safer (also a result of building trust and support). All this is really about those Peelian Principles I mentioned.
Our ability to police a free and democratic society is directly dependent upon public approval and respect. We are the public and the public is us – we are all in this together and without community support we become armed occupiers (warriors) instead of community partners (guardians).
The use of physical force is a public trust to be used very carefully and judiciously; the more physical force we have to use to accomplish our mission, the lesser amount of cooperation we will received from those in the community we serve. Without the cooperation of the community, good policing is simply impossible.
In concluding the article the commander suggests some things that leaders need to do today. They address making sure your policies are in order, the importance of training in firearms use but I would also add an equal amount of training in de-escalation, even dis-engagement when firearms are not present and crafting a new attitude about the importance of the preservation of life. A final point has to do with educating your community, but I would add “listening deeply to the community” as being just as important. We need to hear those voices – especially those of communities of color.
- “The next decade in law enforcement will be the most important we have ever seen. The time is over for weak, spineless leaders in the profession. Today law enforcement is the most trained, professional and educated the country has ever known. Our leadership needs to understand that, maintain that and rise up to the challenges that are already here.”
My response: I would agree. I have little hope for “spineless leaders.” I do know that as in the past, strong, dedicated leaders will emerge and I am hopeful young police officers today will take up the guardian mantle. Yet I would add that more deeply involving the community in that which we do and why we do it will be just as important. The future rests in our ability to collaborate, to be unconditionally respectful to everyone, and controlled in our use of force. That will take educated, well-trained, honest, respectful police officers who will willingly engage in the life of the neighborhoods they police.
[From the “Law Officer” website. March 23, 2016. You can read the full article HERE.]
I am ambivalent about PERF’s recommendations.
I agree with the LAPD Commander’s concerns about changes in criteria for evaluating police use of force. Both the Graham case and PERF’s recommendations are criteria for assessing blame. It is understandable that recent events should heighten concern by officers that political and police leaders seek ways to fix blame, not the problem.
In the Eric Garner case, it was the officer in the field who was thrown under the bus. Who blamed the Sergeant on the scene? Who blamed the police commanders who sent those officers there to enforce that code? Who blamed the police executives who developed and/or sustained the police strategies that took those officers to that scene that day? Who blamed the legislative body that criminalized Garner’s behavior? It is most often the people at the bottom of an organization who are thrown under the bus.
I am disappointed that PERF asserts that it is an organization that seeks evidence based solutions to police problems, but seems to have done little research before making their recommendations. There is a deep body of literature on high reliability organizing, crew resource management, and learning in organizations. While there is little or no research on these concepts in police organizations, there is sufficient research available about these concepts in aviation, health care, nuclear operations, and wild land firefighting to guide us while police specific research is conducted.
If PERF and police leaders are truly interested in effective change they should lead by opening up their organizations to these research efforts. We can assess the extent to which any organization is a high reliability organization, is a learning organization, is well led, etc….. Lead by seeking evidence (learning).
It is never the question that is indelicate, it is the answer.