Hands up don’t shoot

Police reform is complicated. There are many structural, legal, cultural, and political problems with our dysfunctional criminal justice and law enforcement systems. Comprehensive reform will require time and good faith effort by many people. But there is one change that can be implemented easily: police need to stop shooting people!

One indisputable fact is clear; despite widespread public outcry, the unjustified shooting of people continues. On average, three people are killed by police every day in this country. Too many police officers are too quick to shoot people and decide to shoot people when the situation does not warrant use of deadly force.

All people deserve, and should receive, respect and proper treatment by police. This is not a radical concept. Police simply need to act professionally and in accordance with democratic principles and existing law. Everyone has legal rights and a legal presumption of innocence. Making an arrest does not justify excessive use of force. Police are not justified in shooting suspects who flee or resist arrest. It should not matter who the suspect is, what they allegedly have done, if they have outstanding warrants or a police record. Police are not the judge, jury, and executioner.

The only time use of deadly force is justified is when the suspect is shooting at police or other people. Yet time after time, some police reach for the gun first. They shoot before they have had time to assess the situation. They shoot in situations where it is entirely unjustified. They shoot to kill rather than to wound and subdue.

It should not be hard for police to stop shooting people. In fact the majority of current police officers – 73% according research by the Pew Center – have never used their weapon on duty outside of training. It is a minority who seem to be trigger happy. If the vast majority of officers are able to perform their jobs without use of fire arms then it should not be hard for the minority to change their behavior.

Excessive use of force is a management problem. As with any organization, management is responsible for the actions of their employees. Police officers who engage in excessive use of force must be held accountable and disciplined for their behavior. Management has all the authority they need to end unjustified shootings if they want to do it. Police chiefs, sheriffs, and police and fire commissions could issue clear, unambiguous statements that excessive use of force and unnecessary shootings will not be tolerated. These practices can continue only if management allows it to happen.

Because police are public servants, “management” includes political leadership at all levels. In Wisconsin some political leaders are shirking this responsibility. The District Attorney In Kenosha refused to prosecute the police office who shot Jacob Blake. Leaders in the state legislature are playing political games rather than leading to put a stop to excessive use of force. Their latest ploy is to propose legislation to create a statewide standard of police use of force.

Senator Wanggaard (R-Racine County) is a former Racine police officer. He has introduced legislation to create statewide standards for police use of force. Currently there are no statewide standards that apply uniformly to all police organizations. State law says local departments must have a policy but does not specify content.

The proposed new standards say that officers “shall respect and uphold the dignity of all persons at all times in a nondiscriminatory manner.” It also says “officers are required to make every effort to preserve and protect human life and the safety of all persons.” Deadly force may be used “only as a last resort when the law enforcement officer reasonably believes that all other options have been exhausted or would be ineffective. A law enforcement officer may use deadly force only to stop behavior that has caused or imminently threatens to cause death or great bodily harm to the law enforcement officer or another person.”

When using force, a law enforcement officer is required to “act in good faith to achieve a legitimate law enforcement objective” (one wonders what other objectives police might pursue and why this statement is even needed). Read the full text here.

All this sounds good on the surface, but there are many “weasel words” in this language. It will be easy for lawyers or civilian oversight boards (packed with police friendly members) to find that the an officer “reasonably believed,” “made every effort,” “acted in good faith,” or was “imminently threatened.” These are the same justifications used in the past to routinely exonerate officers committing obvious and egregious unjust brutality. The result has been few disciplinary actions. Clearly this legislation is crafted to maintain the status quo and protect the police rather than the public.

What this proposed language does not say is also significant. There is no expectation that police will not use force or will not shoot people. There are no requirements for officers to deescalate situations or use alternatives prior to the use of force. There are no requirements to use the minimal necessary force. Nor must the force used be proportional and appropriate to the situation. Nothing is said about proactively preventing the need to use force. Neither are there requirements for discipline or consequences for violating the standards.

The proposed standards are simply inadequate. Governor Evers’ proposals (that were summarily rejected by the legislature) set better standards. His said the “primary duty of law enforcement is to preserve the life of all individuals.” Police should use tactics to avoid the use of force and only use the minimal force necessary.

Campaign Zero has an excellent model use of force policy that is comprehensive, better protects the public, and discusses enforcement for violations. They say, “police should have the skills and cultural competence to protect and serve our communities without killing people.”

In America police shoot people over traffic stops, for running away, for walking away, for driving away, for driving while Black, for holding a cell phone, for having a toy gun, for sleeping in the bedroom, for picking up the garbage in the yard, for resisting arrest, for not resisting arrest, for talking back, and even when hand cuffed and in custody! We need serious police reform and accountability. To start with, police must stop shooting people.