As a former police leader and now a pastor, I am calling for an end to the killing of unarmed people by police. I’m talking about lethal violence used to resolve standoffs and resistance involving unarmed persons. It is not right, it is destroying the important relationships police must have with the communities they serve, and it must stop.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Graham v. Connor (1989), police have been given the right to take the lives of persons whom they believe to be threatening them. The Court called the test “reasonable objectiveness.” Now the taking of lives in these situations may be legal in the eyes of the Court, but these acts are no longer acceptable in the community; especially in poor communities, and among people of color, who overwhelmingly are the victims of these shootings.
It would be nice if we knew how many citizens are killed by police in our nation, but we do not. The reporting of police-involved shootings is voluntary and many cities and states simply do not report them. However, pulling together news reports of police shootings during the past year reveals approximately 1, 000 persons killed by police, a 30 percent increase from the year before (see www.killedbypolice.net ).
During the first two months of this year (2015) this website reported, respectively, 91 and 84 persons killed by police. Within these data, the victims appear to be predominately male, 40% of color, and their age ranges from teens to senior citizens. We don’t know how many were unarmed at the time of their death.
While the law may currently protect a police officer who takes the life of a threatening, unarmed person, it is not what I would call good police work. Good police work manages conflict, de-escalates tense situations, reduces the threat of violence, and saves lives. Our nation’s police should be guardians of our way of life, controlled in their use of force, and care for those who are in distress or in need of help.
Terminating the life of mentally ill people who do not respond to police orders is unacceptable. Why is this happening? Perhaps it’s a result of the Graham decision, or excessive use of SWAT teams, or as a result of the events of September 11, 2001, or the residual effects of a nation at war for the past decade. Whatever it is, police training and responses have become more aggressive. The standard no longer is to use the minimum amount of force when overcoming resistance. Instead, many of these events are immediately personally defined by police as life-threatening and, therefore, a deadly force situation.
Over 150 years ago, Sir Robert Peel and others developed nine principles regarding how to police a democracy. Three of them are extremely relevant to this discussion and address the importance of police having the trust and support of those whom they police:
- The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.
- Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
- The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
As a seasoned street officer, I wonder why retreating, taking cover, and assessing the situation seems to be no longer standard operating procedure? Why are not lesser instruments used such as batons, chemical spray, or electronic devices? What is going on in the minds of today’s police officers that they feel so threatened in these situations and have to use deadly force?
I trained police in defensive tactics for many years. My specialty was the police baton, or nightstick. In situations involving a person with a knife or blunt object, I trained police to verbally de-escalate, be calm, give clear and direct orders, approach the subject and, if necessary, use their baton. Sure, it’s scary, but often with this organized approach and controlled show of force the person surrenders. I did not advise the use of deadly force to resolve these situations. Much has changed.
I would also expect that police today would have thought this through, developed other methods and devices. I think of the low technology method related to me by a prison guard of how they disarm prisoners. After initial negotiation fails they rush the inmate using a mattress as a shield, take the threatening inmate to the floor, and disarm him. I am not suggesting police should carry mattresses around with them, but they can be creative in their approach to using force. They could, for example, use long wooden staffs, plastic see-through shields, or aerosol “sticky foam” that can encapsulate and bind a potential assailant.
As a nation, we created a free society and democratic government that was to provide “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for its citizens. In order to carry out that pledge, our nation’s police must now stop taking unnecessary lives. While our legal system has given police the right to use deadly force, I am arguing that this is immoral and local governments, through administrative rule-making, can and should restrict the use of police deadly force against unarmed persons.
We must begin by asking our civic leaders and police to prohibit the use of deadly force in these situations. Police are the experts and we should expect them to develop and use methods other than deadly force when handling these situations. Period.
Secondly, we should ask our civic leaders and police to make a public commitment that this practice will cease immediately; that they will change existing policies and training systems accordingly.
We should not argue about whether deadly force is legal in these situations, but rather if is immoral. The use of deadly force in these encounters conflicts with the values we hold with regard to the sanctity of human life, dignity of the human person, and the duty to provide care–especially to those who are exhibiting signs of mental illness.
Further, because police carry firearms, they often feel that in any physical or resistive encounter they could possibly be overpowered and their weapon taken away and used against them. I believe this fear of being disarmed has grown over the years among police. “Smart gun” technology currently exists and is available. It could significantly eliminate this fear among police because a “smart gun” can only be discharged by the owner, no one else.
This is my argument as to why the shooting of unarmed citizens must stop. It is wrong and we, as citizens, have every right to expect our police will conform to our wishes to preserve life. In a free society such as ours, public approval of the police and their actions is essential not only for our freedom, but for the effective functioning of our police.
This is how trust is built and how we can again come to support our police. At the same time, we need to have police who are smart, educated, well-trained, controlled in their use of force, honest, respectful and willing to work closely with those whom they serve. When police fit this model, they are trusted, supported, and effective. And the work they do is personally rewarding, and less dangerous.