By now we’ve probably all seen the news story of the Alabama detective who was beaten with his own service weapon by a suspect who disregarded the detective’s verbal commands to stay in his vehicle during a traffic stop. That suspect, who also happened to be “unarmed” (at least initially), gained control of the detective’s gun and savagely assaulted him. Fortunately the offender ended the attack once the detective was left bloody and unconscious. The detective has since said what most of us suspected when the story first broke: He hesitated to take an action he knew he should have because of how it might be perceived in the media. In perusing comments on social media regarding the story, I came across several comments that lauded the fact that the detective did not shoot his attacker as being some sort of exemplary act of policing because someone who was “unarmed” wasn’t killed. Ignored is the obvious fact that the detective is only alive because of the whims of a violent criminal who elected not to “finish the job” and shoot the downed officer. The officer is not left with permanently debilitating injury by only the grace of God. I say none of this to criticize the officer personally, his hesitation is understandable as a by-product of the times.
As law enforcement officers, we train for the eventuality that we will have to shoot someone. Critics of law enforcement often cite what they perceive to be the inordinate amount of time dedicated to marksmanship training as indicative of some deep-rooted obsession with killing and the perceived “lack” of training on “de-escalation” as evidence of the same. The fact of the matter is that training is designed to create in the person who receives it the ability to perform an action properly under stress. The default position that officers find themselves in on a daily basis sees them acting as agents of “de-escalation”. From mediating a feud between neighbors, to intervening in domestic violence calls, officers are constantly honing their skills at “de-escalation” with on-the-job-training. It is precisely because the use of deadly force is so incredibly rare that officers must constantly sharpen the skill of shooting and knowing when to employ deadly force.
The part of deadly force training that is not so visible to the public, at least not as visible as watching police officers fire at paper targets on a training range, is the study of the law as it pertains to when force may be employed. In 1989 the Supreme Court handed down the decision of Graham v. Connor. In the Connor decision, the Court held that all uses of force against a citizen must be examined in light of what the officer knew or reasonably perceived, AT THE TIME the incident occurred, and based on the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time. No matter how compelling the evidence may be after the fact that a suspect might be considered “harmless” by those who weren’t there, the standard applies. Not the opinion of the public, not the prevailing wind of social media criticism. The law is what matters.
Why is the “objectively reasonable” standard so important in light of recent events? Because there are people who are advancing a false narrative and trying to change the standard in the minds of the public. The focus of headlines around the world regarding the story of Michael Brown was the word “unarmed”. This word had become synonymous, in the eyes of activists, police critics, and media personalities, with the concept of “non-threatening” or “defenseless”. But what does the LAW say? There is nothing in case law that says a person must be armed in order for deadly force to be applied against them. The eye of the law is cold and clear, not swayed by social media fervor or people with agendas. Since the year 2000, almost 60 officers were killed with their own weapons by people who were “unarmed”. In 2013 alone, over 4,500 law officers were injured, many very seriously, by people who were “unarmed”.
I am not going to change too many minds in the public sphere on this issue, but that is not my goal. My goal here is to remind my fellow law officers that you know what you know. Do not forget it. As much as society wants you to, and as tempting as it is to give into the pressure, do not sacrifice the proper tactics and understanding of the law that you have developed to the altar of those who don’t give a damn about your life. If someone is placing you in a legitimately dangerous position where you feel you will be killed or seriously injured, at that moment, their life is NOT as important as YOURS is.
When you took your oath of office, nowhere in it were the words “In the event I am placed in imminent jeopardy of being maimed or killed, I will subjugate my right to life to the wishes of people who don’t know the law and won’t be there to support my family in the event of my death or serious injury”.
There is an old saying that a lot of old time cops I looked up to early in my career used often: “It’s better to be tried by twelve than carried by six”. That saying is more than just idle talk in this day and age.
With increased public pressure comes an increased desire on the part of the political leadership of any given city or town to act first and let the chips fall where they may later. This appears to be the case in Baltimore and elsewhere. It’s time to ask ourselves if we really believe that it’s better to be “tried by twelve”, because the trend suggests that is going to happen more often in the future. So if you find yourself facing a charging behemoth who is twice as big and strong as you are, one who has already battered you and is returning for more, you will have to consider in your mind if it is objectively reasonable to fire on him to save your life. If you are struggling to subdue an “unarmed” man and there are people ringing you with cell phones, yelling encouragement to the suspect, you will have to decide what is objectively reasonable when he locks his hand onto the butt of your pistol and tries to wrest it from the holster.
Choose right and you still may be “tried by twelve”. Choose wrong and, if you’re lucky, the same denizens of social media who would crucify you for shooting to save your own life will mock you for being beaten into unconsciousness and possible severe injury. They’ll even celebrate it. If you’re not lucky, those citizens who do support you will be standing by the road with a lump in their throat as your procession makes it’s way to the graveside service. You KNOW what the law is, make the choice NOW with the settled decision of the court of law in your mind, and leave the court of public opinion and it’s jesters who jeer from the sidelines for another day.