There seems to be an increasing number of events involving police shootings in this country where the victims were perceived to be a physical threat to the officer at the scene. The officer felt the need to use deadly force, only to find that the victim was unarmed or somehow not essentially intending or capable of being the perceived threat. For the moment, let’s remove all the urges to apply some racial overtones to some profiling an officer might have conjured up in what he saw as a threat to his life. For our discussion purposes here let’s take this as simply, regardless of race, an officer involved shooting to defend himself where the victim was unarmed.
I was never a “real” cop but I was a military cop in a previous life and while both are a world of difference regarding use of deadly force maybe I can lend some perspective. Here’s a war story from my early days.
Back when I was in the military (yeah, right about the time Gen. Lee surrendered…) I was an Air Force Security Policeman. Now, the military police of any branch of service usually has very specific rules of conduct that can be very different from the authority given to civilian police personnel. Any military installation is like a small city and needs typical police protection and in that respect rules are somewhat similar to civilian police authority, but there is also a second mission for military police personnel. Generally military police are typically assigned to guard resources such as weapons systems, highly sensitive national security areas, nuclear first strike assets like missiles, bombers, and naval vessels. These areas, simply for reason of national security, can require a response of deadly force to defend, depending on priority level. Civilian law enforcement has very little requirement or authority to use deadly force when protecting any sort of civilian property since our society in general values life before property.
When I was an SP back in the 70’s (uh.. the 1970’s) we “challenged” an unknown individual approaching a sensitive resource by drawing our weapon to port arms, then instructing the person to raise their hands and spread their legs in order to maintain a clear view of their intentions (training could be different these days). Now, “port arms” with a pistol meant drawing it from your holster and holding the muzzle upwards toward the sky from shoulder level. It was NOT pointed at the suspect. In civilian situations an officer, as you know, can draw down and point his/her weapon at any person, at any time, providing there is justification in the officer’s mind to do so, which we hope comes from intensive training.
Returning to my SP days, contrary to civilian police training we were instructed at the time that you point your weapon ONLY as a last resort, with the intent to fire it with deadly force. This was a safety protocol to avoid accidental discharge of the weapon toward a suspect; you didn’t just draw down on a suspect and begin some verbal exchange. We were NEVER encouraged to fire warning shots into the air (ala Hollywood) or to shoot to maim or wound. If you pointed your weapon at someone then you are intending to use it. I had to make that judgment call one evening while on guard duty.
I was a young one-striper a few months out of basic training and assigned to McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, FL (now closed, it was immediately adjacent to the Orlando airport; you can still see the alert bomber parking “Christmas tree” in satellite photos). The primary mission of the base at the time was to maintain four to six B-52 bombers with nukes on full first-strike alert status, along with a few in-flight refueling tankers, for the old Strategic Air Command (“first-strike” meant when the President ordered a nuclear launch… presumably the precursor to the end of the world). These bomber aircraft, when on full alert status, were about as close as you could get with the highest of all national defense priorities.. Priority A. This meant if you were a guard of such resources you had authority to use deadly force on anyone not authorized near
that aircraft. The Air Force required a red line to be painted on the parking surface around the entire aircraft. Inside this red line was considered the “no-lone” zone. Meaning that under any circumstances there was not to be less than two people at a time inside that red line, near any aircraft. The idea being that two people would be less likely to damage or sabotage an aircraft… that one would always be looking over the shoulder of the other. Just an added security measure. For the security guard watching that aircraft it meant that both personnel seeking to cross the red line to service the aircraft would have to be on the entry authority list AND be wearing an authorized access badge. Security guards themselves had NO reason to be inside the red lines they were guarding. If a lone suspect were to refuse the guard’s challenges and enter the red line the guard was only authorized to use deadly force and not to give chase into the red line himself.
There were four bombers on alert the graveyard shift I was on post. I had two bombers on my side of the “Christmas tree” and directly across from me was my zany buddy “Todo” (part of his first name). Even though we had walkie talkies those were reserved for “authorized” communications, so Todo and I would typically yell back and forth or even meet near the physical middle of the parking area without going beyond our patrol limits.
There was a bright moon that night so one could see fairly easily around the alert area. Being Florida in the fall the 4am night air was a bit crisp but calm. As often happens with guards in remote areas, we were left to our thoughts for the evening. As I was lazily gazing over toward Todo’s planes I watched him meander around a bit, his M-16 slung over his shoulder. Slowly he walked toward the red line of one of his aircraft. We all would do that.. nothing unusual there. We’d count the number of steps around the aircraft just for something to do (no, I don’t recall that number) or count the rivets on the aircraft. Then I watched as Todo’s shadow crossed the red line in the vicinity of the nose gear of one of his aircraft. I got up and yelled over to him… “Hey, Todo! You’re over the red line!” “Todo! Todo?” He didn’t respond.
Thinking this was becoming way too weird, I started wondering what was going on. Now at this point I had authorization to use deadly force and shoot his ass. This was a fully alert bomber, loaded with nuclear weapons, and a security guard, armed, intentions unknown, was illegally inside the no-lone zone and would not heed my challenges. I brought down my M-16 off my shoulder and grabbed my radio to call it in before I fired… and at that point Todo walked right into a nose gear tire. He abruptly stopped.. shook his head.. looked around and saw where he was, then ran back out of the red line.
Seeing the immediate threat to the aircraft had been reduced (and erring on the side of caution toward my buddy) I yelled, “Todo! What the fuck are you doing??”
“I think I was walking in my sleep!”, he cried back.
“You goddamned dumb-ass! I almost blew your ass away!”, we laughed and I shook my head mumbling about my own situation if this had gone further. Needless to say we agreed that this never happened… and both of us were assured to be awake for the rest of the evening… me having one eye on my planes and one eye on his planes.
So what does this long-winded war story have to do with cops in the real world using deadly force? Well, beside the pure entertainment value, my story does suggest that the use of deadly force, while authorized in certain situations, is still up to the presumably better judgment of the on-scene officer to exercise it. In my situation.. as time approached that one moment I was to make that fateful decision to off my buddy… I did have a sense of duty and from my distance there would likely have been little chance of me aiming to just wound him to get him to stop. I already knew that. A part of me was ready to kill him if necessary… it’s just that I wanted to make doubly (triply) sure it was necessary. One could also make the second-guess call that I should not have hesitated.. and that I had no reason to presume from the distance that his intentions were not a threat. The fact that he was inside the red line was threat enough. The Air Force trained at the time that I don’t get to judge his intentions.. just his actions. If I had killed Todo inside that red line I would have been perfectly correct in doing so according to USAF. The resulting investigation would have never resolved what his intentions were and it would have gone down as an unknown.. and I did my job correctly. Well, as with any police officer, it always comes down to the moment, and in a flash of light our minds reflect on training, the threat situation, the result of what you might do, and emotional thoughts of being just human and can you live with the decision you are about to make for the rest of your life. That’s a lot of baggage to consider for a momentary flash decision… for ANY human being. Here’s the big point… each one of us would likely act very differently to any deadly force situation because we are just plain human. RoboCop sounds like a cool idea but I don’t think we want to remove human sensitivity from law enforcement… as imperfect as it can be in certain situations.
What I am aiming at here is that maybe “we” should re-examine this idea of the all-encompassing relatively broad permission to shoot-to-kill when a cop feels threatened. Now, don’t over read what I am suggesting here. If some clown is holding a gun with the obvious intent of using it on you, then any reasonable person would likely shoot to kill him because shooting to just disable is not likely to get him to stop using his trigger finger when he’s down. But what if a nutcase is charging at you with a lead pipe or a knife? (just where does anyone get a lead pipe these days anyway??) Why can’t the officer experiencing that threat use his own sense to determine if capping the guy in the knee would stop his charging, thus saving the guy for prison time and keeping him (the officer) from having a life of guilt for having taken a life? In other words, I am getting the sense that police academy grads are being instructed that any attempt that threatens a cop physically SHOULD be met with a shoot-to-kill response… rather than promoting a judgment of the threat in order to respond accordingly. I am not recalling any reports recently in the news that suggest any suspect, armed or not, was disabled by gunfire (other than in a direct shoot out, which is different from what I am discussing here) because they were a threat to police. Usually the suspect is just plain killed. It’s a kind of no-tolerance reaction to the threat to the officer of any kind.
Here’s another story.. (short one, I promise). My ex-wife and I were at a local movie theater, in the lobby waiting in line for popcorn. There were a fair number of people in the line. My attention was drawn to some drunk guy behind me making some scene and a uniformed armed city police officer, pulling some off-duty part-time job as theater security, confronted the guy. Words were exchanged and the next thing you see is the drunk guy grappling with the officer when the officer was attempting to physically restrain him. They actually ended up on the floor rolling around in a tussle, to the astonishment of the patrons in the lobby watching all this unfold. I was watching the officer’s gun in his holster, expecting the drunk to make a grab for it (in which case I’d likely have pushed my wife out of harm’s way around the corner of a wall, and I’d get involved). Well, neither officer nor drunk made a grab for the officer’s gun and finally the drunk was subdued and cuffed. Now.. would the cop have been justified to use deadly force on this obvious assault to his person? Certainly had the drunk made an overt attempt to grab the officer’s gun from it’s holster during the tussle the entire situation would have taken on a greater threat and use of deadly force might have been in the cards. Or… if the drunk were actually striking the officer with his fists versus just engaging in a wrestling match, might that have invited deadly force? Lots of questions to be sure. But that’s the whole point in the officer having the latitude to make a spontaneous judgment call to meet a threat rather than following some training that says if anyone assaults you feel free to blow them away.
My experience as a military security cop was at no level a law enforcement job comparable to civilian police in the daily risks that can pop up on a duty shift. “Real” cops have a tough, and often thankless job to do each day and their only motivation is that they simply want to serve the public good. My intent here is not to second guess them. But in my lifetime law enforcement has changed. There is no more “Officer Friendly”. Police are stressed even before they enter a situation. We (the public) have to try and compensate for this by making sure when we are pulled over for a traffic violation that our hands are visible to the officer, no sudden movements for your wallet, and having to tell the officer you are now going to open the glove box to get the registration. Why? We tell our kids when a cop confronts you don’t smart-mouth or argue with him. They are not your parents and they can kill you. Why? Because we now fear the possible reactions from stressed cops. There’s been a lot of mistaken shootings because it seems everything today looks like a gun to the police. Something’s not right when the public fears the cops more than the lawbreakers fear the cops.
With this post I’d like to suggest further research into the psychological and emotional reactions in determining when and how law enforcement chooses to use deadly force. Maybe even go a step further and evaluate the realities of situations police can find themselves in these and are they given the tools physically and intellectually to meet the daily threats to themselves and to also protect and serve the public. Because if I were a typical urban officer these days I’d be reporting to work feeling I was going into a war zone of the unexpected… and all I want to do is go home at the end of my shift to my wife and kids in one piece. You start your day thinking about self-preservation. That’s a lot of baggage to take to your job each day… and be expected to think objectively.
Before I end this long-winded post I thought I’d toss in this pic of me being confronted by an air marshal back in 1972. I was on my way to a new duty assignment in Iceland and was at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport waiting to depart. Now remember.. this was way before TSA and Homeland Security. There had been a rash of aircraft skyjackings; nutcases wanting to go to Cuba or places equally strange. In spite of my military uniform, this officer took me out of line and asked me to empty my pockets. Feeling a tad embarrassed in front of the other passengers in line, I joked it off a bit.. and mother snapped this picture. It wasn’t until later that I saw in the picture the VERY alert attention the officer was paying to me as I dug into my pockets. It’s a little smudgy but you can even see his right hand having unclipped his holster in order to draw his weapon in a moment if the situation called for it. This was one sharp officer. I can only guess that some suspect profile for the day may have included watching out for GI’s with a grudge or suspects posing as GI’s as a possible skyjacking threat. I passed his scrutiny and lived to tell about it. But I’ve always admired this officer for keeping to his duty. Lucky for me I didn’t pull out something that looked like a gun.