By Fred Benson
It’s all right there in the official reports.
“The call from the station directed me to the corner of 4th and James where there was a disturbance involving a young man acting aggressively towards others on the street. It was after 10:30 p.m., so it was pretty dark when I approached the subject, and he was clearly agitated and started yelling at me to stay away.
“I told him to take his hands slowly out of his pockets and put them behind his head. He started screaming at me and kept his hands in his pockets. I didn’t know if he was stoned or crazy, but I knew he was trouble. The backup I called for had not shown up when he started walking slowly towards me, still yelling.
“I became frightened that he had a weapon and was going to attack me. I drew my weapon, pointed it at him, and yelled at him to halt or I would shoot him. I was so nervous that I began to experience tunnel vision, seeing only his face and chest and suddenly all noise stopped. I could hear nothing but my own heart pounding. It looked like he was pulling something out of his pocket as he moved more quickly towards me.
“I had no choice. I shot him.”
And later this.
“I couldn’t believe it when the cops came to the door and told me my Arnold was shot. They said he attacked a policeman who had to shoot since Arnold was coming after him. How can they do that? He didn’t have a gun.
“They said he was bothering people on the street, like asking for money. Yeah, he’s been in a little trouble before for acting up but nothing to get shot for. There’s Arnold lying on the sidewalk, and this cop gets in his car and goes away like nothing happened. This is wrong. It’s bad. They killed my son and nobody seems to care.”
Situations similar to this have taken place more than 12,000 times between 1980 and the present. The ultimate truth is that for all participants in this sidewalk confrontation, there was a tragic ending: for the young police officer, a never-ending nightmare knowing that he – legally – killed a troubled teenager, and who left policing and moved out of town.
For the young man’s family there is an angry, enduring loss.
Several studies have been conducted on police shootings; each arriving at a fairly common set of conclusions.
There is no uniform nationwide requirement to report shootings by police. Only 750 of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States now do so.
In only about 1 percent of the shootings is a police officer charged with wrongful death. To apply deadly force, federal law requires only that “the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
Because of shortage of funds or the small size of some police departments, training in handling conflicts of this kind is inadequate.
Among these studies is an exceptionally fine piece of work accomplished by CNA, a private analytical organization, in response to a request from the U.S. Justice Department. The report included a detailed examination of 87 cases of officer involved shootings (OIS) in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD), resulting in 75 findings and recommendations, most of which have been implemented. The key recommendations include ensuring that every OIS is investigated and documented by a specially trained unit of the LVMPD composed of officers who were not involved in the shooting. Also recommended is the creation of a program focusing on de-escalation training and the oral skills needed to avoid the need for deadly force. These initiatives have led to a notable reduction in officer-involved shootings in that jurisdiction.
The first and best way to lessen the likelihood of these tragic shootings is to lower the overall incidence of violent crime in this nation. Community policing, such as that established in Washington, D.C., by an aggressive chief of police, has resulted in a significant reduction in overall violent crime rates and more than a 50 percent reduction in homicides from previous peaks. Beyond that, the current spate of OIS cries out for federal legislation to create an accurate and complete registry of all police shootings so that more cases can be reviewed and analyzed.
More importantly, the legislation should mandate the establishment of a formal training program for all federal, state and local law enforcement officers that picks up on the CNA work noted above. There are many examples of how potential conflicts can be avoided through careful management of voice-tone control, time and space to keep things calm, particularly when dealing with the young. These practices should be institutionalized.
It must not be forgotten that on average one U.S. police officer is shot and killed in the line of duty every week. They have families, too. We must insist that our police officers have the best possible training to avoid the unwitting killing of an innocent person, while also ensuring that they maintain the finely-honed martial skills necessary to defend themselves and the general public from bodily harm as the law clearly allows.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. [email protected]