There seem to have been a lot of police shootings in the last few years. I’ve been wordering about this. It seems that, if a cop feels he has to shoot at a suspect, the cop most often aims for the chest and pulls the trigger multiple times. Sometimes multiple cops pull their triggers multiple times.
This is fine in the cases in which it’s called for – and armed suspect has killed someone (or a few someones) and there has been a “hot pursuit,” where the suspect is cornered and desperate. In these cases, letting him escape could easily prove fatal for innocent bystanders, or for the very cops in pursuit.
But there have also been shootings where it was unknown whether the suspect was armed. The cops, lately, always say, “He was reaching for his waistband,” or something like that. In these cases, the cops have thought (assuming they told the truth about the reaching) that the suspect was going for a gun. It’s a split-second decision, with lives at stake. And I think we all probably have a “better safe than sorry” reflex built into our brains that activates in these situations.
What I don’t understand is why the police, in these types of cases, shoot to kill. It’s well publicized that cops are trained only to draw their weapons when they intend to kill the suspect. But I think the meaning of this has been lost.
The “only if you intend to kill” imperative was, I think, implemented because guns are dangerous – even in the hands of a well-trained police officer. It would be foolhardy to pull a gun in a situation where you were sure you didn’t want the suspect to die. Shooting a person and hoping they won’t die is a fool’s bet.
The message to young cops is: don’t pull your gun unless it’s okay that the suspect dies. But the intent of that “rule” is not that, once your gun is out, you should shoot to kill. It’s there to make the officer realize that, if you shoot someone, there is a good chance they will die, so don’t take shooting someone lightly, nor even un-holstering your gun.
But once that gun is out, there is nothing – no rule, no imperative, that says: “You must now kill this person, and make absolutely sure he or she is dead.”
An example where shooting to kill was unnecessary and uncalled-for came all too soon after Johannes Mehserle was given a light slap on the hand by the court for killing Oscar Grant – a time of turmoil for the city of Oakland, California. Derrick Jones, who was unarmed, was shot while running from the police and “reaching for his waistband several times.” (my emphasis) I guess the cops put up with him reaching for his waistband a few times, but then it was just one too many.
The police shot Jones at least five times in the chest and abdominal area, later making a kind of “better safe than sorry” argument. But why? Why couldn’t they have shot him in the leg, and taken one extra second to assess the danger that Jones might have a gun? This seems a reasonable course of action given the circumstances.
Police officers point out that they are under incredible stress in these situations. But the police are trained for this and they get practice in the real world, especially in a city know for gang violence. Cops are supposed to be the ones to keep cool heads when everyone else is screaming and panicking.
By and large, cops are brave individuals who perform a great service to our communities. But sometimes, a cop can let emotions rule his or her actions, just like the average citizen might. I think the policy that a cop shouldn’t pull his or her gun unless there is an intent to kill the suspect should be further explained and explored while cadets are in training. It seems like a policy with solid motivation but somewhat poor execution – with dire consequences at times.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.