I woke up this morning, read the news and checked my perspective on law enforcement use of deadly force.
As a retired chief and street cop and one who now frequently reviews deadly force cases, I’m keenly aware of the awesome power that the citizenry delegates to police. Cops are granted the sanction to use deadly force when it is legally justified and reasonably warranted. In using that sanction, we require that officers accurately perceive and analyze a potentially lethal encounter and respond with appropriate force to mitigate the danger and bring the best possible resolution to the encounter.
After the fact, in the safety and comfort of 20/20 hindsight, we’ll judge the officers. We’ll decide whether the cop was at her very best when the suspect was at his very worst. Stakeholders—citizens, law enforcement executives, civil rights advocates, minority group organizations—all want to hold officers to a very high standard. Fair enough, but it cannot be an impossible standard. When officers do the right thing, the rest of us need to stand up and say that the officers did the right thing.
We’ll judge the officers according to a system aiming for justice. Justice isn’t the same as satisfaction. Our justice system is adversarial and there is always someone who prevails and someone who does not. The system is not designed to make everyone happy. Cops are at the front end of an imperfect system, but we expect them to be the most perfect actors in that system.
Officer-involved shootings make up a small sliver of a percent (0.00063%) of police-citizen encounters. But those events are guaranteed to make the evening news and the front page of the newspaper. I understand that. The media needs sensation to sell its product. But those stories give an imbalanced perspective of the day-in, day-out, service and sacrifice conscientiously given by law enforcement officers.
Why is police use of deadly force so rare? I believe that there are three broad answers. First, despite the many violent crimes in the United States, officers don’t usually arrive on scene until after the drive-by shooting or armed robbery. Second, law enforcement training has significantly improved since the days that my great-grandpa was our county sheriff. I learned about cover and concealment in the academy and to "watch the hands." We’re getting even better training and equipment today, learning de-escalation techniques and stand-off tactics, understanding that time can be a cop’s best friend. Third, and perhaps the most compelling reason, cops don’t want to use deadly force. Like decent humans, we are born with an aversion to kill that is reinforced through our upbringing. We listened in Sunday School when we were taught, "thou shalt not kill."
My friend Dave Grossman was in Utah recently. He often uses the sheepdog metaphor to describe the protectors that society sanctions to kill another human being in the defense of life or protection of the community. As a former German Shepherd police service dog handler and grandson of a sheep rancher, I appreciate the analogy.
Colonel Grossman explains that sheepdogs can make the sheep (the protected citizens) nervous because of the sheepdogs’ shared qualities with the wolves (violent criminals who threaten the community). The wolves are predatory creatures; they want to harm the sheep. The sheepdogs bark, circle and herd to keep the sheep together (keep the peace) in order to protect the sheep from the wolves. Once in a while, the sheepdogs must go on the attack when a wolf invades the herd of sheep.
Some folks don’t like being compared to sheep. Maybe even some wolves resent their label. Fair enough, some of them are merely misguided coyotes. But they’re still threats to the sheep. Col. Grossman’s example illustrates the ambivalence that some citizens feel toward law enforcement officers. As a young patrol officer I’d sometimes take my Sunday day shift lunch break and attend a worship service. Many congregants gave sidelong disapproving glances to the revolver on my hip. Some folks don’t want cops among them until they need them. Grandpa’s sheep were never really happy to see his dogs unless the dogs were the only thing between them and the wolves and coyotes. The sheep knew that the sheepdogs were capable of awesome violence to protect them from the wolves. Grandpa said that the sheepdogs loved the sheep, but the sheep would never quite understand that.
Police use deadly force because society charges them with the responsibility to protect the rest of us. We see the headlines when police faced with deadly threats respond with deadly force. We don’t hear about the countless times that officers place themselves at death’s door and risk their very lives and don’t use deadly force and the officers’ restraint under tremendous danger pays off.
Officers often must make the life and death decision literally in the blink of an eye. In every case, one person has complete and unfettered control over whether an officer is placed in a deadly force situation. That person is the armed assailant, the robber, the home invader, the murderer, that society demands to be captured and held accountable.
Deadly force situations take an almost incalculable emotional and mental toll on the officers involved. The officers that I have interviewed have uniformly wished that they had not been constrained to use deadly force.
So what impacts my perspective on police deadly force this morning?
Look at the picture above. First there was a car chase up the canyon. The suspect got away. Deputies in the next county saw the suspect and began an intense and exhausting foot pursuit through dangerous woods and hills, over barb wire cattle fences and gullies and cold, wet river bottom. A reverse-911 call to the nearby town warned citizens of the hunt for the suspect. This is rural Utah; I bet there were more than a few folks standing at ranch house windows with hunting rifles and shotguns.
The suspect leveled his gun at the deputies, perhaps intending that he become one of those rare persons killed by an officer’s gun. So-called "suicide by cop"? Shots fired by deputies. No hits.
The suspect was finally cornered. He shifted his aim from the deputies to his own head. Hero cops—there’s really no other way to put it—refrained from deadly force, pleaded, negotiated and convinced the suspect to surrender. The television helicopter arrived in time to film the deputies putting on the handcuffs. I immediately recognized the Sheriff’s Office truck and deputy standing over the suspect.
Many years ago, one of those deputies who traversed the gullies and climbed the fences to stop the suspect from reaching town was the two year-old that used to run to hug me when I came home at the end of each patrol shift. She and her brother grew up to be cops.
The cops did a great thing. At their own peril, they protected the sheep and protected the wolf from himself. They have done it before and they will do it again. Stand up and say it. I will, now that I’m done being a nervous dad.
We expect cops to be noble and compassionate centurions. Today, I’m thinking of several cops—one in particular—who are definitely up to the task.