It is a key question that increasingly we have to address. The case of Walter Scott in South Carolina clearly illustrates a scenario where there is no justification for a use of force by the police – the suspect, unarmed is retreating.
There may be more question in the Ferguson case where the police officer, by most accounts, had a confrontation with Michael Brown, but even there Mr. Brown may have been 150 feet from the squad car when he was fatally shot. For the Grand Jury and the Justice Department, there was not enough to charge the officer with a crime, but could the death have been prevented?
That is one question that arises out of a report in the New York Times (Police Rethink Long Tradition on Using Force). They discuss the “21-foot rule” which arose more than 30 years ago when a young Salt Lake City police officer asked a question: “How close can somebody get to me before I’m justified in using deadly force?”
The Times notes that Dennis Tueller, an instructor in a training course in the fall of 1982, “performed a rudimentary series of tests and concluded that an armed attacker who bolted toward an officer could clear 21 feet in the time it took most officers to draw, aim and fire their weapon.” He would publish his findings.
The Times writes, “The “21-foot rule” became dogma. It has been taught in police academies around the country, accepted by courts and cited by officers to justify countless shootings…”
However, “Now, amid the largest national debate over policing since the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, a small but vocal set of law enforcement officials are calling for a rethinking of the 21-foot rule and other axioms that have emphasized how to use force, not how to avoid it.”
The question that many police departments are now looking at is when should officers pursue people or draw their guns, and when are they better off either backing away or trying to defuse the situation.
We have already had some discussion on this as the Davis Police Department, as articulated by Assistant Chief Darren Pytel, has talked about the importance of slowing things down and waiting rather than performing dynamic entries. Now police are questioning other situations as well.
“In a democratic society, people have a say in how they are policed, and people are saying that they are not satisfied with how things are going,” said Sean Whent, the police chief in Oakland, as reported in the Times article. That city is notorious for police abuse and misconduct, but has seen sharp declines in the use of force with policy changes and a new approach.
The Times writes, “Like the 21-foot rule, many current police practices were adopted when officers faced violent street gangs. Crime rates soared, as did the number of officers killed. Today, crime is at historic lows and most cities are safer than they have been in generations, for residents and officers alike. This should be a moment of high confidence in the police, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. Instead, he said, policing is in crisis.”
“People aren’t buying our brand. If it was a product, we’d take it out of the marketplace and re-engineer it,” Mr. Wexler said. “We’ve lost the confidence of the American people.”
The New York Times reports this: “The typical police cadet receives about 58 hours of training on how to use a gun and 49 hours on defensive tactics… By comparison, cadets spend just eight hours learning to calm situations before force is needed, a technique called de-escalation.”
Mr. Wexler, for instance, suggests that there are alternative ways to resolve issues. For instance, “officers who find themselves 21 feet from a suspect can simply take a step backward to buy themselves time and safety.”
In fact, Mr. Tueller’s 21-foot rule “even proposed a bright line between a shooting that was justified and one that was not.” Now 63, he told the Times “he had simply wanted to warn officers that they might be in danger far sooner than they realized. Twenty-one feet as a justification for shooting, he said, just became a ‘sticky idea’ in policing.”
The Times quoted Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who said at a policing conference in February: “Sometimes it seems like our young officers want to get into an athletic event with people they want to arrest. They have a ‘don’t retreat’ mentality. They feel like they’re warriors and they can’t back down when someone is running from them, no matter how minor the underlying crime is.”
Chief Whent of Oakland made a similar point to what we have made on the Vanguard: “In most cases, time is on our side. We’re chasing someone whose name we know, and we know where they live.”
In November of 2011, the community and nation watched in horror as the UC Davis Police pepper-sprayed seated protesters on the UC Davis Quad. Three months later, the protesters shut down the US Bank in the Memorial Union but, instead of confronting the protesters with police and arrest, the officers simply documented their offenses, forwarded them to the DA’s office, who issued summons notices. The arrestees were prosecuted without public incident.
In many cases where the perpetrator is resisting but does not represent a danger to the public or officer, the police could deescalate the situation by confronting them later.
The Times noted that Oakland’s efforts have worked: “All officers receive training that emphasizes smart decision-making. After averaging about eight police shootings annually for many years, the city had none last year and cut in half the number of times officers drew their guns, Chief Whent said.”
The Times also notes, “Whether a shooting is justified often hinges on the fraction of a second before the officer fires.” They cite the case in Cleveland where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was wielding what turned out to be a toy gun.
Writes the Times, “But earlier decisions can also be critical. In Cleveland, officers pulled their cars extremely close to Tamir, immediately increasing the possibility of a confrontation.”
“In Ferguson, Mo., an officer said he killed Michael Brown, 18, last summer because Mr. Brown had lunged at him after a scuffle through the window of his cruiser…. the officer, Darren Wilson, got out of his car after the tussle and pursued Mr. Brown alone.”
In Seattle, “internal investigators chastised the officer, Ian Birk, for approaching the armed man and then using the 21-foot rule to justify shooting him.” “Officer Birk created the situation which he claims he had to use deadly force to get out of,” a police review board concluded. The officer resigned.
The question I think we have to ask is whether we are training police officers correctly when they receive over 100 hours in tactical training, but less than 10 in training on how to de-escalate the situation. Almost all of the highly publicized officer-involved fatalities might have been preventable.
—David M. Greenwald reporting