An uncomfortable community discussion needs to occur today about policing in America.
It has to do with mission and the role of “officer safety.” Is “officer safety” the primary police mission, or is it something else, at least something as important?
There is something as important, even more important, and it has to do with everyone’s safety. It’s not that officer safety is not part of the police mission, but it is not THE mission. Instead, the mission is the protection of all human life — everyone’s. That is the mission of police in a free and democratic society.
Carrying out that mission must be accomplished within a legal, moral, and constitutional framework and recognizing and accepting that “sanctity of human life” is the primary value of American policing (see recent PERF Report on use of force principles).
This is the giant elephant that sits today in the corner of every community discussion about police use of force — when citizens ask, “Are you putting your life ahead and above our lives?”
Years ago, we in Madison, Wisc collectively formulated a mission we believed would be a driving force in all that we did — including use of deadly force. It directed how we treated people. This mission statement took precedence over our safety and all that we did. While officer safety certainly was an important goal, it simply could not take precedence over a mission which stated:
“We believe in the dignity and worth of all people. We are committed to proving high-quality, community-oriented police services with sensitivity.”
Our nation’s military is much clearer on this matter than are many of our police. When I was given a mission as young marine, I could not refuse to carry out that mission because it may risk my life — it wasn’t about me, it was about the mission.
The mission always came first! It was proper to be safety-minded when doing so, but personal safety frequently had to be put aside if it prevented accomplishment of the mission — our national interests.
I fear something has happened since that time which makes “officer safety” the primary mission of many police agencies. It might be a good example of what is called “mission creep” (“the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization.”) While officer safety is a notable goal, it cannot supersede the overall mission which is always to protect and serve everyone.
An officer uttering the words “I fear for my life,” and disregards the mission which is to protect all lives, is not a sufficient reason for that officer to disregard the mission by taking another person’s life.
In Europe, the standard for life-taking by police is quite high. It’s not about an officer experiencing fear, but rather whether or not the use of deadly force was an “absolute necessity.”
Many of us have seen have videos from the UK and other European nations wherein police appear to use extreme measure to avoid the use of deadly force.
The mission of police in a democracy is difficult, very difficult, and that is why policing is a calling — a vital, honorable, and necessary practice in a free society — not the kind of work any person can do.
The other public safety service in our nation is that of our firefighters. I think it is a fair comparison. Our nation expects firefighters to enter dangerous, burning buildings to save lives and those men and women who do that work know they may have to put their own life at risk in order to do so — to carry out their mission.
When America sees its police in the same selfless vein; that their police officers will routinely put themselves at risk in order to save a life, regardless of that persons station in life or race, police will become more respected, supported, and, yes, safer, because citizens will try to keep their police, who they know are committed to them, safer.
When police became seen as selfless public servants strongly dedicated to saving lives, all lives, then we will slowly, but surely, raise both their trust and effectiveness in our nation’s cities.
It’s time to discuss and then implement a national set of engagement rules for our nation’s police that assure deadly force is used only when “absolutely necessary;” the same engagement rules that apply to those who live and work in European Union nations.
It is time for our nation’s police to be known for their care for others, rather than their quickness to use force. When that happens, the mission will have been accomplished.