Recently, a couple called the police when their son, drunk, began destroying their property with a hammer. He was using it to bust the windows of his father’s car. He was disorderly and threatening, although he had nothing but a hammer in terms of a weapon. The parents did the logical thing when he wouldn’t calm down. They called the police. Shortly after the police responded to the house, one of the officers shot and killed the young man. The man did disobey multiple orders to drop his hammer, but were shots to the torso when the man kept coming towards the officer threateningly excessive? Many believe so. The case is still being investigated, and the community awaits the results of the investigation. Meanwhile, a young man is dead.
What are officers taught in terms of situations such as this? Domestic problems are quite common for law enforcement, and often the situations are resolved quietly with few getting hurt.
According to an article on the FBI’s site, “Excessive – specifically, unnecessary, unwarranted, and disproportionate – force is both unlawful and unethical and has no place in the American justice system” (Pinizzotto et al). On average, law enforcement officers kill on average approximately 385 people each year using justifiably deadly force. We want our law enforcement officers to protect themselves, but at the same time, we want to depend on them for having good judgment in threatening situations.
According to the same article, 80% of officers report having been assaulted at least once during their careers. In addition, the average number of assaults on the typical officer is seven. So officers really have to be aware and alert during each incident they investigate. More often than note, officers choose not to use deadly force:
The study found that approximately 70 percent of the sample of police officers had been in a situation where they legally could have fired their weapon during a critical incident but chose not to. Officers were involved in an average of four such incidents during the course of their career. Only 20 percent of the sample had been involved in critical incidents where they fired their weapon during the incident. (Pinizzotto et al).
More often than not, officers prefer other means to deadly force even when they could ethically and legally choose to do otherwise.
The U.S. Department of Justice offers a handbook “Police Use of Excessive Force” that gives an interesting background on the use of force. Prior to 1985, many jurisdictions allowed more use of deadly force: “essentially, that police could use firearms or any other means of deadly force to arrest a person suspected of such property offices as check forgery and auto theft” (17). But a Supreme Court decision regarding Tennesse v. Garner in 1985 changed that. Part of the ruling stated that “deadly force may not be sued unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and the office has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others” (18). It is this philosophy that has governed how we see the use of force by law enforcement today.
Even with that decision, different agencies find that they have to develop their own policies regarding the use of force within the guidelines of that ruling. Many people have come to believe that officers should only use their firearms to protect his/her life or that of someone else.
That brings the question of what other options do officers have today when it comes to subduing someone. What tools are available to these officers?
Almost all jurisdictions give their officers pepper spray or some similar spray. While its use has to be taken seriously, it is certainly less lethal than a firearm. It must be noted that pepper spray is at least five times more potent than the hottest natural pepper in the world (bhut jolokia) and that it can temporarily blind people and cause significant breathing difficulties in some people. Too concentrated, and it could even result in death, although this isn’t likely (Lee). In that young man’s case, the parents would have certainly welcomed the use of pepper spray on their son instead of bullets.
Although not as widespread, Tasers and/or stun guns are another set of tools at law enforcement’s disposal. In some form, electronic control devices have been used since the 1970s. They allow officers to subdue a suspect without inflicting serious physical injury. There have been reports of death from the use of a Taser, but that has been rare. Policies on when to use these tools vary widely from agency to agency, but used judiciously, and they offer another alternative when the suspect will not listen to the officers.
Regardless of whether an officer uses a firearm, pepper spray or a Taser, all law enforcement agencies need clear guidelines for officers to follow in terms of using force. In addition, officers do better with appropriate training in the use and the scenarios that may be encountered.
When it comes to the incident referred to in this article, the officer belongs to a small local law enforcement agency. While the investigation is ongoing, one fact that has come out as a result of the medical examiner’s report is that the victim suffered from multiple gunshot wounds to the torso fired from one of the officers. The other two officers did not fire their weapons. Would the officer have used other methods if they have been at his disposal? Who knows? But this sad incident brings up serious questions about the use of deadly force in situations such as drunken domestic incidents and how well our local law enforcement officers are trained in determining which force to use and to what extent.
According to Mike Chalmers, more and more police departments nationwide are beginning to post guidelines for the use of force against criminal suspects. It will be interesting to see when our local jurisdiction finally posts theirs.
Chalmers, Mike. “Police Putting Use-of-Force Policies Online.” USA Today. 10 Dec. 2012 Web. 02 Jan. 2012.
Lee, Brianna. “Five Things You Need to Know About Pepper Spray.” PBS. 01 Dec. 2011. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.
Pinizzotto, Anthony J. et al. “Restraint in the Use of Deadly Force.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Jun. 2012 Web. 02 Jan. 2013.
United States. U.S. Department of Justice. Community Relations Service. Police Use of Excessive Force. Jun. 2002. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.