On Police and Deadly Force

On Police and Deadly Force

Non-hypothetical: You clear ice from your driveway, then decide to see if you can earn some cash offering the services in your neighborhood. Someone calls you in as a suspicious person and a few minutes after the cops show up, you’re dead.

This is the story of James Baker, which served as a recent reminder that the problem of police and the use of deadly force stretches beyond the issue of race (though it certainly includes race).*

The examples of James Baker, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice suggest some troubling patterns.** First, in each of these examples it appears that officers started by acting as though they were impervious to danger, then – suddenly fearing for their lives – quickly responded with deadly force. Second, their actions contributed to the escalation of (relatively) routine encounters into fatal collisions. Brown, Rice, and Baker should still be alive today. None of them had committed anything remotely close to a capital offense before their final encounters with the police. But the situations quickly escalated out of hand until they were dead. I think it requires willful blindness to ignore the possibility that police practice is contributing to these outcomes.


The case of Tamir Rice was the clearest example of this dynamic. I realize that his toy gun may have looked real and that it is dangerous to play with guns (real or fake) in public. But we have this thing called the 2nd Amendment. Most basically, the right to bear arms should mean that having a gun is not a capital offense. It should also lead police to prepare for encounters with armed individuals and to recognize that some (many, most?) are non-violent.

In this case, the police knew in advance that they were responding to a gun-related incident. Why didn’t they take precautions so that the sight of a gun wouldn’t immediately threaten their lives and require the use of deadly force? For instance, why not initially park at a distance and engage the gun-wielder while remaining in the (relative) safety of their car? Instead, by engaging at close quarters they practically guaranteed that the merest hint of a threat would necessitate the swift use of deadly force.


I believe that most cops, including those who ultimately use deadly force, would much rather never take a human life. But they don’t seem to know how to avoid or de-escalate these situations when they arise (often by surprise). So how should we address this problem?

First, we need to see more careful, systematic study of officer-related deaths, starting with a federal database and federal reporting requirements. We should do this not to lay blame but to look for patters that can help us prevent these tragic outcomes. Because no one is winning or being made safer by the shootings I referenced above.

Second, based on this data and existing local programs we need better training of our police forces that gives them the tools they need for de-escalating potentially-violent situations. That training should include an emphasis on protecting and serving over enforcement of authority for authority’s sake. If a petty criminal flees the scene, that’s far preferable to a confrontation that ends in death. Even accused criminals deserve to have their lives protected by the police.

Third, we need to continue a society-wide discussion with the aim of shift our cultural expectations. Plenty of civilians have been willing to excuse these deaths on the basis that the dead were (or may have been) criminals. Fortunately for all of us, being a “nice guy” is not the legal standard for the right to life. Cops aren’t supposed to be shooting every “bad guy” they encounter. But if that’s what members of our community expect from them, that’s what they’ll continue to do.

None of these steps will be easy. A national database would require Congress and the president actually working together on something, however inexpensive and noncontroversial it may seem. The police protests in New York are a clear example of the challenges of police reform (and also, I think, a great basis for a dystopian novel). As for the change in culture, well, part of this is work left incomplete after decades of effort stretching back to before the Civil Rights movement. In other words, don’t except it to come quickly or easily. But do expect it to be worthwhile.

Every police shooting (like every civilian killing) is a tragedy. With a decades-long low in civilian crime, it’s past time we worked intelligently to address the deficiencies in our system of state sanctioned violence.


* For the record, attacking a police officer (as James Baker apparently did, with a snow shovel) is never a good idea. And police officers need the authority to protect themselves in such encounters, including with the use of deadly force. But that should not – indeed, cannot – preclude drawing conclusions from such encounters.

** I’ve deliberately left Eric Garner out of this list because at no time (that I can see) did any of the offers involved have any reason to believe that their lives were in danger. They simply killed a man because they were overzealous in detaining him and did so in an illegal manner.


(Featured image adapted from flickr user r. nial bradshaw under creative commons license)

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a reform-minded historian, center-left Democrat, and religious believer.

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2 Responses to On Police and Deadly Force

  1. I think your suggestions are really important and will achieve some much needed adjustments in our current law enforcement situation. I really like the idea of a federal database for these incidents. If we can pair technology(wearable cameras) with this as well we can really help to make our police forces more transparent, which would help communities. Of course, there are many who are quite vocal in opposition which should really raise the eyebrows of those who they protect. Understandably it will be perceived as a threat by law enforcement, which means we as the citizenry must make it clear that we a) understand the complications and inherent stress of their job and that b) we only want to ensure the safety of them and those they encounter, this isn’t about “blaming cops”. We just want to make the system better if we can.

    For me however, I also believe that our current drug laws have had a lot to do with many aspects of this “over zealous” law enforcement problem. First being that our police forces are now stacked with military weapons, partly due to the drug war(for larger cities) and the war on terror despite a clear decrease in overall crimes committed. Second, our prohibition on drugs have lead to increased recidivism rates, especially among minorities. This does nothing to help drag those communities out of dire economic straits. There are many other reason why our drug laws have contributed to the increase in aggressive policing tactics but these are the most prominent in my mind.

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