Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On Police Use of Force

Over the Bellman, I've been discussing police use of force with the blogger known as DR and this post is an open letter to him. But feel free to join the discussion of you are so interested.

DR is specifically interested in police use of lethal force. But I think it's important to zoom out a little bit and discuss police use of force in a broader context before getting to the difficult and controversial topic of police use of lethal force.

In order to educate myself I consulted the collection at the law library where I work and discovered several books under the subject heading police brutality. The one I found most interesting and persuasive is Police Violence: Understanding and Controlling Police Abuse of Force by William A. Geller and Hans Toch, published in 1996 by Yale University Press. |Amazon| |Worldcat| |Powells|

Based upon this book and other readings, I'd like to suggest a few premises for the discussion.

1. The police ostensibily promote order in society and it is a worthy goal to improve the quality of policing.

2. The police are authorized by the government to use force to enforce order.

3. Police officers have a great deal of discretion in the amount of force they use to enforce order.

4. All police within the United States have formal rules, regulations, policies and use of force policies promulgated by their superiors.

5. All police have an informal culture they develop and are subject to peer pressure.

6. All police work takes place within a social context and officers take into account a subject's class, race, sex, and submission to authority in dealing with citizens.

7. Geography places a role in police work, i.e. police officers know where the "bad" part of town is and treat people found in the bad part of town worse than people in the nicer parts of town.

7a. Police officers are subject to criminal and civil prosecution for official malfeasance through a variety of state and local laws.

8. Police officers are rarely subjected to punishment through criminal or civil prosecution.

9. Police officers do not protect individuals, but rather the existing social order.

10. The existing social order is racist, sexist and classist.

11. Abuse of power by police officers (especially when caught on videotape) can lead to scandal, demonstrations, police officers and police chiefs losing their jobs and even riots.

12. Now I would even go so far as to say that the police function is essential to our current society and that without police society would soon descend into anarchy and gangs of thugs would rob, rape and pillage with impunity and the U.S. would come to resemble Baghdad. You may not agree with this strong a statement and I admit that this premise is more controversial.

But now let's get into the philosophy of police use of force. Messrs Geller and Toch suggest this definition of excessive police use of force on page eight:

Excessive [police] force should be defined as the use of more force than a highly skilled police officer would find necessary to use in that particular situation.

The authors contend that this formulation demands police use the best professional practices and holds them to the same standard that all other professionals with a rigorous code of conduct use (such as engineers, doctors, architects or attorneys).

The book contains an extended discussion of the research on use of force by police and outlines the social, psychological and organizational theories of police action that I attempted to summarize in my premises above.

I think most reasonable people agree that there is a great deal of abuse of force by police in the United States today and that there is a great deal of room for reform.

Now, from there let's try to develop a philosophy of police use of deadly force.

Again, some premises.

13. Police should defend themselves against all reasonable threats.

14. Police should use the least amount of force necessary to resolve a situation consistent with preserving order and protecting themselves and citizens.

15. Police should use deadly force to protect themselves or members of the public from imminent danger of significant injury or death.

I hope these are relatively uncontroversial. I think our disagreement may lie in the next few premises.

16. Police must take all threats to themselves and citizens seriously.

17a. An individual with a knife poses a grave risk to an officer armed with a handgun if that individual is allowed to approach within 21 feet of an officer.

17b. An individual armed with a firearm poses a grave risk to an officer armed with a firearm at any distance.

17c. An individual under the effects of drugs can pose a grave threat to police officers and citizens even when unarmed. Specifically, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and PCP cause irrationality and delusions while making users less amenable to pain.

17d. Mentally ill individuals may also pose a threat to officers due to delusional behavior and a frequently not deterred by shows of force.

17e. The undead are notoriously difficult to stop.

17f. Aggressive use of vehicles constitute a grave threat of death and dismemberment to police officers and members of the public.

18. The United States is awash in firearms and drugs and criminals frequently have access to firearms.

19. Police officers do not have much time to investigate the level of threat posed by a firearm and must react quickly to the presentation of firearms.

20. Sometimes police mistake a non-lethal object (such as a toy gun, a wallet, or a rolled-up T-shirt) for a gun. How reasonable this mistake is depends upon all of the circumstances of the incident.

21. Police must sometimes use lethal force to subdue individuals who are either on drugs or mentally ill.

22. If a situtation requiring lethal force could be avoided by a highly professional officer, then the use of force was imprudent, but this should not necessarily be criminalized.

23. Efforts to reform police work should not be rooted in a desire to punish police officers.

24. Reform efforts will be more successful if aimed at improving the quality of selection and training of police officers.

Ok, thus far I've been talking primarily philosophy and social science. But I do want to make a couple of public policy arguments.

25. If police oversight becomes too onerous police will effectively stop doing their jobs by responding to calls in a slow fashion or giving warning to criminals that they are coming.

26. If police officers are expected to get shot or stabbed before they can return fire, this would have a demoralizing effect on police officers and could lead to either police doing their job or insufficient candidates for new police officers (similar to what the US military is experiencing with recruiting now).

I think that's enough for now (or even too much), we can get into the execution of search warrants and arrest warrants later. Let me know what you think so far.


DR said...

I explicitly rejected 13 and 15 in the TheBellman post, so I don't know why you think that they're uncontroversial. The point of the post, in fact, was to argue that 13 and 15 are controversial.

DR said...

Let me clarifly slightly now that I'm not running for the bus. I don't think, for reasons argued elsewhere, that police use of defensive force is analagous to the use of defensive force by a citizen. In particular, the justifications differ. The citizens right to use defensive force is, somehow, inherent in her rights as an individual as such. Insofar as someone exercises force as the agent of the state, however, the justification deployed must be a justification of state power.

It is probably the case that the maintainance of state power requires that attacks against its agents be repelled, but (and this is a big but) state power is not threatened by the fact that those attacks are not repelled immediately.

Consider, if an Unjust Aggressor shoots at a citizen and the citizen can only survive through the use of deadly force, and the citizen doesn't use deadly force and dies, then that's it for the citizen. On the other hand, if a police officer dies in a similar situation, the state does not wither away. The state can, after all, still enforce punishment against the aggressor if one of the state's agents dies.

Safety Neal said...

I still cannot believe you're taking this line and denying police officers their humanity. Police officers aren't robots, they are people with families who want to come home at the end of the day.

DR said...

Well, I'm glad you don't believe that I'm denying them their humanity, because that's not my view.

Safety Neal said...

Let me go back and re-read your original post because I'm just not getting your point.

Safety Neal said...

Ok, I've read over your post now and I can only conclude that you are indeed suggesting policies to the effect that police cannot shoot back unless they are shot at first.

Is that correct?

DR said...

I haven't suggested any policies. My remarks have concerned the kinds of justifications available.

As it happens, I doubt that it is permissible for police to shoot first. Or, at any rate, to shoot first as readily as they do.

I would deny, however, that support for such a policy denies police their humanity. To be a police officer is to occupy a very particular social role, and (as with any social role) justifications of what you do as an occupant of that social role have to do with the role rather than the individual.