Changing Policies, Changing Attitudes

imagesWhere are the community dialogues regarding police use of force policies and training?

Why the silence? Let’s get talking! What are you going to require of your police

What’s at stake if citizens do not stand up and require their police to be better controlled in their use of force; more respectful of human life? While we hesitate there are more Fergusons, Clevelands, Staten Islands, Albuquerques, and Madisons. Taking the lives of unarmed persons in police confrontations will continue unless action is taken.

Who is at risk? Probably not you or me because these deaths seem to involve youth of color, homeless people, and those mentally ill. But could this happen your white, disturbed teenager? Ask Michael Bell, a white Wisconsin businessman who’s unarmed son was killed for resisting arrest in the front yard of his home. When it happened, Michael Bell stood up. He took the money he received from seven-figure wrongful death settlement from the City of Kenosha and worked to pass a new state law which mandated an outside investigation of police-involved shootings.

On reviewing a number of police department policies throughout the country (including those from my former department) I think I may have found the problem — why police are so tight-lipped about discussing when their officers are permitted to use deadly force — they think they are operating legally. And in most cases they are.

It all goes back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision called Graham v. Connor. In this decision, the court declared that the test regarding the legal use of force by police must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene of an incident and not after-the-fact; something they called “reasonable objectiveness.” The decision was five years old before I retired and I do not remember rushing to change my departments use of force policy which commits to preserving life and using only the minimum amount of force necessary to overcome resistance — a policy in place for over two decades.

Currently, it appears Madison police use Graham v. Connor as the standard in its use of force policy. Just this month Seattle tightened up its use of force policy after too many instances of police taking lives and even successfully defended a court challenge by the police union to the new policy. See the comprehensive policy and their core principles of using force HERE.

Using Graham v. Connor as the standard for using force by police is not a good idea. And I am not sure our nation’s police leaders have really thought this through. Because if “objective reasonableness” in the mind of an officer determines who dies when facing noncompliance or resistance, we are all in trouble — including police who will continue to suffer from mistrust and lack of cooperation in carrying out their duties.

Here’s why. I have argued, and continue to argue, that the job of a police requires smart, educated, well-trained people who share our nation’s core values, are controlled in their use of force, honest, and who eagerly work with the people they serve. Those are the kind of people we want carrying guns and policing our neighborhoods. I argue this because in performing police duties, officers will often find themselves in fearful, dangerous  situations. In the back of the minds of police officer there is always the thought that someone could overpower them and use their sidearm against them . But proper and effective training and close leadership can help officers keep that fear in check (and along with the possibly of new technology like “smart guns.” See below).

If that fear is not controlled then every resistance situation could “reasonably” be a situation in which officers have fear for their life. Therefore, in all fearful situations, resistance becomes life-threatening and then it must be overcome and deadly force is the simplest, most efficient, and quickest; a pull of the trigger.

America needs to discuss this. Is this what you want? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think police in a free and diverse society such as ours should be permitted to use force under the broad standard of Graham v. Conner. We can and should do better. We can expect more of our police.

It is, however right that this decision should be the civil and criminal standard for judging whether a police officer acted legally in using force — but it should not be the way a police department operates in the community.

I submit that another standard exists — a moral standard; doing what is the right thing to do. Our nation’s police are to be peacekeepers and lifesavers, not executioners of those who do not comply with their orders or resist being taken into custody.

A police department cannot let its officers hold attitudes of “stand your ground.” Backing off and slowing things down is okay. When life is seen to be sacred, then creative and effective alternatives can be developed to handle conflict situations. Less-then-deadly methods must be developed and put into practice. We should demand no less.

In the meantime, I have an immediate suggestion: require every police officer to carry a firearm with “smart” technology that prevents someone other than the officer from discharging his or her weapon.

This technology is currently available. When police have smart guns the fear of being disarmed and killed in an encounter is no longer present — and lives will be saved. It would be a start along with well-developed, value-principled policies, training, and leadership.

  • In short, what is legal should never be the standard  for what is right and moral with regard to the use of deadly force by police.