Risk and police shootings

I’ve been told that a man who trains police officers to handle dangerous situations has a frightening habit when pulled over for traffic violations. After parking his car, while the officer behind him is running his plates, he exits the vehicle and begins walking towards the police car. As he does this, he reaches behind his waist and slowly pulls out … his wallet. He does this to see if the officer will follow through on his training. The officer is supposed to draw his own weapon and order this man to stop. If the officer fails to do this, the officer is putting his own life in needless danger.

Well, then.

Intentionally creating that kind of apparent threat to a police officer seems immoral, not to mention exceedingly stupid. I wouldn’t be surprised if the man ended up dead in an officer-involved shooting. If he were to die in such a way, it would be a terrible tragedy. I would also be sympathetic to the police officer, who in my opinion, would be partly a victim and partly guilty. The officer would be a victim to the extent that the other man intentionally made him fear for his life, and gave him a massive incentive to overreact. The officer would be guilty to the extent that he did overreact.

We in America have a problem with the way we talk about police shootings. We probably have several, but I’ll point out only one here. When we talk about the risks that police face, we have a tendency to count them twice. We do this by pointing out that we ask police officers to risk their lives and that they should be honored them for undertaking a dangerous task. That’s counting it once. At that point the risk is expected. But then when we consider some dangerous incident, we sometimes act as though it is unreasonable to insist that the police risk their lives. We make an additional allowance for risk, thus counting it again.

It is scary, and risky for an officer to wait and see what someone pulls from behind their back before deciding whether to shoot. This is certainly true. But is that not exactly the sort of risk we ask them to undertake? Almost any individual situation could be made safer for the officers by shooting first and investigating later. That obviously is not what we expect them to do. So we should not excuse police who behave in that way.

It’s not about risk anyway. In many cases, police shootings should be judged differently than a similar shooting by a private citizen. That is, the police should receive more benefit of the doubt. If a private citizen flags down a car and then promptly shoots the driver when he lunges for the glove box, that citizen should face a murder charge. It’s not quite the same when a police officer shoots someone, but the difference isn’t the risk. In many cases, the police officer should face a manslaughter rather than a murder charge. The difference is that we as a society ask police officers to shoot people. That is literally part of the job.

Let’s consider another job with a destructive element. Suppose you hire a landscaper to tear out some bushes and plant new ones. Now suppose that he removes the wrong bushes. That’s upsetting, but it is not comparable to a stranger coming out of nowhere and tearing up your yard. In the case of the landscaper, you actually asked him to tear up your yard.

Let’s try another one. Suppose a man comes to repossess a car because the owner has been delinquent on the payments. In such cases, it is not uncommon for the owner of the car try to hide it. The repo man is legally permitted to bring a duplicate key and simply take the vehicle. Sometimes they might even hotwire the car. You can see where this is going. Suppose he takes the wrong car. That’s grand theft auto right? Well, not really. It could be an honest mistake. And if it is an honest mistake, it has to be treated differently.

We could also make the opposite comparison. There are many jobs that are dangerous. It is generally not permitted to kill people to reduce the danger. Think of road construction crews with cars speeding by; out comes the gun and, pop, pop, pop. Much safer now. That would be horrible.

Police shootings must be considered differently from random acts of violence, even when they are ultimately not justified. But it isn’t about the risk involved, it’s about the job we ask police to do. They are tasked with making difficult decisions in real time about who to shoot and who not to shoot. We must be able to discern murder from tragic, but honest mistakes. We need this ability because we must do justice to the dead and the living.

Society’s task is to provide clear guidelines for how police are to make decisions in difficult situation. We have the opportunity to consider during times of quiet what justice demands. We can’t afford to be sloppy in how we think or talk about such things. It’s one of the most important things that we do as citizens.


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