Finding Alternatives to Lethal Force by Police

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Police ShootingBy Matthew Simpson

On March 13, 2016, off-duty Farmer’s Branch police officer Ken Johnson confronted two youths — 16-year-old Jose Raul Cruz and his friend Edgar Rodriguez — as they were allegedly attempting to break into a car. The youths fled, and Johnson pursued them, ramming the teens’ vehicle and forcing it to spin out of control. According to the officer’s account, an “altercation” ensued, during which Johnson drew his service weapon and fired, wounding Rodriguez and killing Cruz.

Johnson has since been charged with murder for the killing. But a police shooting that ends with a murder charge — or, for that matter, even disciplinary measures — remains the exception to the rule.

Last year 108 Texans were shot to death by law enforcement officers. This year that number sits at 28 and counting. Whether or not those shootings were legally justified (or justifiable) is not an issue we plan to examine here. Whether or not they were avoidable is another question entirely.

Consider the following:

  • On June 14, 2015, Shirley Harrison placed a call to the Dallas Police Department requesting assistance with her mentally ill son Jason, who came to the door twiddling a screwdriver. Within five seconds of the first command to drop the screwdriver, the officers shot Harrison five times, killing him.
  • On February 4, 2016, San Antonio police officer John Lee pulled over Antronie Scott in order to serve a felony warrant. As Scott exited his vehicle, Lee ordered him to show his hands. When Scott went to show his hands, Lee fired one round into Scott’s chest, killing him.
  • On February 8, 2016, Austin police officer Geoffrey Freeman responded to a disturbance call at an apartment complex. There he found David Joseph, a naked, unarmed 17-year-old high school student. Joseph did not respond to officer Freeman’s commands and allegedly “charged” the officer. Freeman fired his weapon at Joseph, killing him.
  • On March 12, 2016, officer K. Levi of the Houston Police Department saw an “agitated” Peter Gaines damaging a street sign. Levi tried to calm Gaines, who appeared to be under the influence of narcotics. Gaines allegedly charged Levi, who twice fired his Taser before firing his sidearm at Gaines, killing him.

In cases such as these, great pains are taken to exonerate officers and blame the dead. Newspapers routinely highlight criminal histories or violent mental illness or struggles with substance abuse, while the thoroughly disingenuous phrase “officer-involved shooting” puts distance between the fatal shots and the cops who fired them. This is how we end up with preposterous headlines like “Tasers fail to prevent 3 police-involved shootings,” the implication being that the victims had to be shot with something.

But in a nation exhausted by the commonplace killings of unarmed citizens at the hands of law enforcement officers, we must find alternatives to lethal force.

For example, the Police Executive Research Forum recently published a list of 30 guidelines for use-of-force policies, the first and most important of which calls for the prioritization of the sanctity of human life in any police encounter. This would be a welcome first step, but other more specific reforms are just as important.

PERF’s report recommends that the “21-foot rule” be discarded in favor of “distance, cover, and time.” In other words, officers should be prepared to wait “as long as necessary” to resolve a situation peacefully, especially when those situations involve people who are mostly a danger only to themselves. Were such a policy respected, Jason Harrison and David Joseph and Peter Gaines might still be alive.

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The report also calls for the “critical decision-making model” to replace the existing “objective reasonableness” standard. Were this policy in place, officer Lee might have approached Antronie Scott in a context where a cell phone might not be mistaken for a firearm. Officer Johnson might have realized that chasing and killing a kid for attempting to break into a car is infinitely worse than letting him get away with it.

We should also take investigations for police shootings out of the hands of police departments and turn them over to civilian review boards. The dead cannot speak for themselves, and they deserve independent, adequately funded, and impartial investigators to either verify or challenge the officer’s version of events. While many Texas cities do have civilian review boards, they are mostly toothless entities that can only make recommendations to the departments they serve. A bill that would have broadened their authority failed to pass in the last legislative session and should be re-introduced in the next.

These reforms are necessary if we hope to prevent senseless deaths in the future and bolster law enforcement’s failing relationship with Texas communities. The lamentable status quo has to be seen for what it is: Not the atypical result of “bad apple” cops who break the rules, but the predictable results of average cops who follow them. It represents a failure at every level of government, and police departments and elected officials need to take a stand if we ever hope to reduce the body count.

Matthew Simpson is a Senior Policy Strategist with ACLU of Texas

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9 thoughts on “Finding Alternatives to Lethal Force by Police”

  1. Biddlin

    How about hiring officers who’s first choice is reason, instead of force? You’d have to raise the iq limitations so that those who score above a 105 are considered for the job.

  2. tj

    Last Saturday’s New York Times described the capture of “the most wanted man in Europe”, believed to be involved in the deaths of 130 people and injuries to more than 400 others.

    He was “brandishing a handgun, before being shot in the knee and trundled away by the Belgian police”.

    Quite a nice contrast to our homeland where police training is “always shoot to kill”.

    1. South of Davis

      tj wrote:

      > He was “brandishing a handgun, before being shot in the

      > knee and trundled away by the Belgian police”.

      Feel free to “shoot for knee” or “shoot the gun out his hand” when you are ever face to face with “the most wanted man in Europe, believed to be involved in the deaths of 130 people and injuries to more than 400 others” but any sane person is going to shoot for the chest (and have the highest percentage of hitting the guy) before he kills or injures more people.

      P.S. I’ve been gone for a while so you may not know that I think most cops that shoot crazy guys holding a pocket knife (or toy gun) belong in jail but when you know you have “the most wanted man in Europe” he only gets one second to drop the gun before you take him out (so you don’t need to tell the mom in the next building that he got a few shots off killing her kids as you were trying to hit him in the knee”)…

  3. tribeUSA

    Presumably the Belgium knee-shot was with a high-precision laser dot-sighted pistol?

    Why not use such laser-sighted pistols for incapacitating rather than killing a suspect? Maybe someone who’s up on gun technology can fill in; presumably with a short barrel a pistol cannot be accurate to the laser-dot at moderate to long distances and beyond; but presumably at less than 50 ft (or so) distance there are well-engineered laser-dot sighted pistols that, when well-calibrated, are very precise at short distances?

  4. Tia Will

    he only gets one second to drop the gun before you take him out (so you don’t need to tell the mom in the next building that he got a few shots off killing her kids as you were trying to hit him in the knee”)…”

    And thereby losing any chance you might have to gain information from him that might prevent the next such attack. But of course, you will never have to explain to “the mom ” of the victims of the next massacre he was part of how you killed the opportunity that you had to stop her child’s killer.

    Lethal force will only be the best answer when the threat is also deadly and imminent. Resorting first to lethal force can kill not only the innocent, but also any hope of gaining the information that might save others in future attacks.

     

    1. South of Davis

      Tia wrote:

      > Lethal force will only be the best answer when the threat is also deadly and imminent.

      If you don’t think that “the most wanted man in Europe”, believed to be involved in the deaths of 130 people and injuries to more than 400 others” pointing a gun at you is a “deadly and imminent” threat to yourself or others it it not worth much time debating the issue.

      > Resorting first to lethal force can kill not only the innocent, but also

      > any hope of gaining the information that might save others in future attacks.

      If “the most wanted man in Europe”, believed to be involved in the deaths of 130 people and injuries to more than 400 others” kills you first (and a half dozen others getting away) it will also eliminate any “hope of gaining the information that might save others in future attacks”…

  5. Tia Will

    the most wanted man in Europe”

    I think the events in Belgium are an example of where anti-law enforcement social justice people will take us if allowed.”

    Oh, for heaven’s sake !  How many of these incidents have there been in the US in comparison to the number of incidents of police shooting people armed with toys, or wallets, or cell phones, or perhaps nothing at all because the police officer “feared for his life” ?  Terror makes for great headlines, but it is not pertinent to how most police officers in the US should be responding to situations in which there is no immediate and deadly threat.

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