Are American Police Programmed To Overreact with Lethal Force?

It seems every year, we have another high profile shooting in the United States where the victim was shot by a police officer in circumstances that don’t seem to make any sense. Whether you are in your car, on the street, in a convenience store, or even in front of your house, it know doesn’t seem like you are safe anymore.

In fact, people have been killed in each one of the circumstances by police who felt their lives were “in danger.” Philando Castile, a 32 year old black male in Minnesota, was shot by a Hispanic police officer after he informed the officer he had a legally registered firearm and began to reach for his ID. Alton Sterling, a 37 year old black male in Louisiana, was shot on the sidewalk in front of a CD store after struggling with police and after they apparently had subdued him. Michael Brown, an 18 year old black male in Missouri, attempted to assault an officer and then tried to flee before being shot almost 15 times. And most recently, Justine Damond, an Aussie woman in Minnesota, was shot by police in front of her own home after having called them in the first place to report what she thought was a rape. In this most recent incident, the details are still fuzzy at best but according to some accounts, the officer involved shot her as she approached the vehicle in the dark, after hearing what he thought to be gunshots, later discovered to be firecrackers.

This is just a sampling of the officer-involved shootings in the United States and have all resulted in protests. The actual data on officer-involved shootings per year is sketchy due to how some incidents are reported and the fact that they only recently have started to track these incidents. However some reports seem to suggest these numbers average in the 1000s every year. Large percentages of these victims tend to be minorities and more specifically, African-Americans. And up until now, many have said that these large numbers of shootings are results of racial profiling and targeting by police. But I am convinced there is a different and more poignant factor at play here.

This idea was really reinforced by the shooting of Justine Damond, whose case doesn’t fit many of the cases in the past. She wasn’t a minority and she wasn’t being targeted by police, but rather she actually was the one who called them. And just days before Damond was shot, Seattle Police gunned down a pregnant African-American woman inside her own home after she called them to report a burglary. In all fairness, this woman did have a history with mental illness and was armed with a knife but facing two officers bigger than her who were both armed with firearms doesn’t sound even close to a fair match-up.

The real culprit isn’t racism, it’s a pervasive culture of lethal force where last resort tactics have become the first resort response to most situations. I believe there are situations when guns are necessary, but is a gun really necessary to take down a pregnant woman with a steak-knife or a fleeing unarmed teenager? I do not think so. There were plenty of options available in many of these circumstances but the officers either didn’t think to use them or didn’t have access to them. In the case of the pregnant woman in Seattle, both officers were equipped “with less-lethal force options” that they apparently didn’t utilize. And in Justine Damond’s case, I can see how a dark figure quickly approaching a police vehicle coupled by gun shot sounds could make them nervous.

But in those circumstances, all they needed to do was to shine a bright light on her which would have first, revealed she was a woman wearing pajamas and just holding her phone, while also temporarily blinding her, meaning that if she really was an assailant, she would have been blinded for a second, allowing the two cops in the squad car to cover her with their weapons. Certainly, hindsight is 20/20 and it is very likely that the officers’ first instincts in these types of situations was to draw their sidearms. However, therein lies the problem and that is how we are training today’s officers.

Clearly, we need to be training officers, not just on how to shoot to kill, but also on how and when to use other forms of force that are non-lethal. Pepper spray, tasers, batons, stun-guns, rubber-bullets, and much more non-lethal alternatives exist out there. In some small police departments or in jurisdictions facing budget cuts, some officers may not have access to this type of gear. But in many of these incidents, officers did and even had these options in their posession. Again, I am not saying the officers deliberately ignored these non-lethal alternatives because they wanted to kill someone that day. But what has happened is that they haven’t been trained to instinctively use non-lethal options first and save the gun for last.

And yes, sometimes that means the officers may put their lives in harm’s way by hesitating to quickly eliminate a possible threat, but in doing so, they may end up saving an innocent life. A police officer puts on the badge knowing full well that he could die in the line of duty, but your average citizen and member of the public isn’t expecting to be gunned down and their safety should be paramount.

So at the end of the day, I don’t intend to bash our cops or paint them all as killers. But what I do intent to do is highlight that there is a growing need in our nation to address how we train our officers to use deadly force. It’s time for deadly force to truly be the last resort.

Follow Publius Tacitus on Twitter at @PCTacitus

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