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Rules, Police use of deadly force
Catching up on the local news today I found that the police killed a person, known to be unbalanced, within about 1/2 mile of my house. I read what I could about it in the online version of the local paper. I do not know for sure that the police who responded knew that the person in question was unbalanced. I do know the police knew he was armed only with a knife. The town in question is one of the more wealthy on the San Francisco peninsula so the police department's total experience with violent people is almost certainly low.

I have been watching a lot of old cop shows online because I do not have a functioning TV. While doing this last night I was thinking to myself that almost all of the time the police (actors) shoot to kill in any sort of confrontation. I will not pretend that I know with certainty how I would react under similar circumstances. I would hope that if I was a cop the training I received would have embedded in me the notion that one shoots to wound unless there is a clear threat to me or another cop or a member of the public. Defining clear threat is obviously situational.

There have been a number of events in my general area (San Francisco Bay Area) where the police have killed someone who was unbalanced but armed only with a knife. There have also been a number of incidents where fleeing suspects have been shot and killed running away from the police. I know this is partly a perception issue. Obviously a police involved shooting that includes a death is a lot more news worthy than one that does not. I am sure that a significant majority of incidents similar to the ones I mention end without a death.

I have a tendency to complain about the police and how they interact with the general public, I admit I am doing it again. I also know, from the few police acquaintances that I have had, it can be an unpleasant job and that the time it can take a situation to become dangerous is often very very short. It is a job that demands a lot of training which can be difficult to follow under duress.

I wonder at what are the typical rules regarding police use of deadly force. It seems apparent to me that what I would consider reasonable rules are being violated with some regularity.

I know this is a difficult situation for individual police departments. The moment they admit that officers have violated department rules on deadly force they will very soon be paying a significant wrongful death judgment. They have a very strong financial reason to not really enforce these rules if violated. I still believe that the enforcement of reasonable rules should lead to fewer civilian deaths.

Edit: I have now done a little internet search on the subject. What I could find was nebulous enough that almost any sort of use of deadly force could be argued to be acceptable.
Edited by JohnH on 08/25/2010 16:33
Interesting timing on this topic John. Here in Denver the police have been involved in three rather high profile incidents that were caught on video and there was a recent beating death caused by guards at a prison. The politics around it have been very interesting to watch.

Denver's review system for such events was to have them reviewed by a Public Safety Officer, in this case a fellow named Ron Perea who was himself a former police officer for over 20 years. In each case Mr Perea briefly suspended the officers in question only to fully reinstate them.

The public outcry, especially since video of these incidents was easily available, was such that Mr Perea has been forced to resign. The FBI has now taken up the investigation. I think your theory that the situational economics gives the PD an incentive to softpedal such incidents is pretty solid.

One of my collectors is an ex New Jersey cop of long experience and he suggested that in these situations it is usually near impossible to really know what went on unless you were there. Things that happened before the video, words that were exchanged, etc all are important factors that can be difficult to fully know in an investigation.

The fact is that the policeman can pretty much claim anything and unless it can be proven that his statement is false it will come down to the word of a trusted law enforcement official versus that of a criminal suspect. The simple claim that a verbal threat was made or that an incident occurred beforehand can be impossible to verify and enough of an amelioration of events to justify the officer involved.

Most PD's give their officers wide discretion to use force to prevent what might become a situation that could result in injury to either bystanders, the suspect or the officer. This is so broadly interpreted that my friend tells me cops often argue that a suspect who runs from the police is potentially dangerous to anyone in his path, justifying a wide array of responses including deadly force.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
I hate Monday morning quarterbacking in sports and I really hate it when applied to cops. Here we sit with our kitties on our laps drinking a beer and typing at the computer. We've watched a video of something that doesn't look quite right. Well, the guy who had to make the split-second decision wasn't sitting with a kitty on his lap drinking a beer and typing. He was practically shitting his pants having to approach a lunatic to determine what the hell to do. I'm giving him a lot of lattitude.

I've been on the other end too. I had the cops eat my dinner as they raided my house for drugs thirty years ago and smacked me around some. I got over it.
I agree with you to an extent, but I probably don't give them as much latitude as you do. Perhaps you shouldn't have 'gotten over it' quite so much.

I like cops more than I did forty years ago. I'll never forget having to stand outside my car in sock feet on a 102-degree day for 45 minutes while they practically disassembled my car, on no probable cause other than my long hair.
Bob of QF
I've known real cops and other law enforcement people over the years... there is no such thing as "shoot to wound".

If an officer draws his gun, he is trained to use it if his judgment sees fit, in the deadliest way possible-- there simply is insufficient time for anything else. As Kowboy pointed out, they are at the sharp end of the stick ...

... on the other hand, my cop friends also point out, that too long on the streets is too much for some-- they begin to see it all as "we" versus "them" and the 'them' are all scum, or scum-waiting-to-happen.

Finally, the "it's only a knife" argument is fine, if you are across the street. If you're up close and personal? A knife can be more deadly than a bullet, if plunged into the wrong place-- hit a major artery and death happens within 3-5 minutes. True a bullet can do this as well-- but a bullet does not slash as a knife does.

I'm not trying to excuse the cops, if they were at fault-- far from it, I've seen too much overzealous coppery to be complacent about it.

But-- if you hand out guns and you expect the people you hand them to, to use them at need?

You're going to see people being shot with them.

That's the price you get, for handing out guns in the first place.

Again, I'm not saying we should ban them all, nor am I trying to excuse bad cop actions.

I'm just pointing out the reality of our society, at present: we give our law enforcement people guns. For good or ill.
Quantum Junction: Use both lanes

Reality is that which is left, after you stop believing.
Frankly I can't think of a better way to do the job and until someone does we have what we have.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
I have tried on my posts on this topic to avoid sweeping generalizations. I used two specific examples of use of deadly force that cause one to think about the justification for the level of force used. The one which bothers me the most is the suspect running away. There have been a number locally where the suspect was unarmed and the criminal history was not at all violent.

The proliferation of video cameras has also provided video evidence of police force that at a distance show nothing to justify the force used. The Rodney King and Oscar Grant videos probably being the most famous. You can find video of one of the events that Seeker mentioned posted, if I remember correctly, on a Denver TV station site. A friend of someone who had been subdued by the police was thrown to the ground while standing nearby talking to his father on the phone.

I accidentally found on the SF Chronicle site (sfgate) a series they had published some time ago, where they took a close look at several (at least 4) police involved shootings where the SFPD had to pay judgments from civil courts. It being the nature of news the Chronicle found someone with expertize to state that the police in question did not follow appropriate procedures. That did not impress me as much as something else. There was a significant correlation between individual police officers involved and their history of violence toward the public. The shooters tended to have a much higher level of civilian complaints for violence then the average. I am sorry I cannot provide a link nor did a search on the site this morning find a path I can describe. I think the series was published in a section called special reports and I could not find that.

I know these sort of incidents are very difficult to judge from a distance. But, it is not monday morning quarterbacking to question how public servants function doing their job. I think in the case where a member of public is killed by the police a high level of scrutiny is required.
Edited by JohnH on 08/26/2010 14:56
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