21 October 2015

Rules of Engagement for Police – The Need to Know

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently said that crime is increasing in Chicago because “We have allowed our police department to get feral ... They have pulled from the ability to interdict ... They don’t want to be the news story themselves.”  (Washington Post) 

While the Mayor expressed himself in unfortunate terms (“feral”), he has a point. The Ferguson-Baltimore effect has changed the way we evaluate police actions.   Over the years, the prevailing view has gone from police actions being nearly conclusively OK to being a little - or a lot - inherently suspicious.  Maybe the change is a good idea; maybe it’s a bad idea; but it’s still the truth.

So far, the attention of both the pro- and anti-police critics have been formed only after-the-fact.  What should an officer have done in such-and-such a situation, and so did the officer do the right thing? 

This is a negative feedback cycle. People do learn when they screw-up and others they hear about screw-up. But the (alleged?) screw-ups have still happened, and somebody got hurt.  So the officer is called to answer for something that has already happened and that can’t be undone. 

Sometimes that is fair.  There is a video going around showing an officer shooting an obviously unarmed guy in the back from 30 feet away.  That’s almost impossible to justify. The officer has been criminally charged.  But sometimes, doing an after-the-fact analysis is distinctly unfair because we are applying some standards we just came up with.

It’s relatively easy to be a civilian.  The rule about confrontations is simple: Avoid them.  Unless you have a real, REAL  good reason not to.  That is fortunate because the most people continue to have a warped perception about personal violence. Life does not have a reset like a video game. You cannot do violence and make it go away.   When a movie-style fight erupts in a bar, and cue-sticks, tables and chairs are used as weapons, injured people do not get back up, dust themselves off, and have another drink. They are hauled away in an ambulance or coroner’s wagon. Some of them will be checking into a nursing home to deal with injuries for the rest of their lives. I had a client a couple of years ago who got into a brief bar fight. From his perspective at the time, it seemed like a minor thing. He didn’t want to hurt anybody badly or permanently.  But owing to very bad luck all around, he killed a guy with one punch. He served jail time because he broke the rule about a citizen’s duty to avoid a confrontation.  

With police, the Mayor said it all:  “They have pulled back from the ability to interdict.”  The police are supposed to go toward trouble. For my money, that’s the primary difference between citizens and public service people. Who in their right mind wants to get in a gun fight, run into a burning building or deal with gruesome injuries?

An image often used by police is the sheepdog. There are lots of sheep – people who lead normal, ordinary and even boring lives. There are a lot of wolves, who depend on violence or the threat of violence to get things from the sheep. And then there are the sheepdogs.  They take care of the sheep.  The role of the sheepdog is not a directly productive one. The sheepdog does not furnish wool. If there were no wolves, we would not need sheepdogs.  But there are wolves. So we need sheepdogs.

For a sheepdog to function effectively,  s/he has to know what the rules are. In the military, these are called “Rules of Engagement.”  In other words, they should know in advance what is an acceptable response is to a given situation.  And the Rules of Engagement need to be specific.  A rule that says “Don’t Screw Up” helps no one.  

Let’s make some factual assumptions. These are not universally true, but pretty accurate as a general rule:

1 - Most police officers want a quiet shift without undue conflict.

2 - Everyone wants to go home in one piece after the shift.

3 - Everyone wants the other guy to go home in one piece, too.

4 - Everyone wants to use enough force to reach whatever their goal is - to stop someone from hurting people or to stop a major crime - but no more than necessary.  (The invention of pepper gas and the Taser have helped that one along.)

5. No one can fire a firearm safely.   It’s not designed to be safe when it’s fired.  It’s designed to hurt and kill people. 

6 - No officer specifically wants to kill people.  But officers know that they may be called upon to shoot someone and that if they do, a death is likely to happen.  Shooting the gun out of someone’s hand is pure movie fiction.

7 - Some wolves will continue to do things which requires deadly force to stop them.

I think those rules are fair. 

We need to make an another assumption which is unpleasant, but true.  Race and other ethnic stuff matters. This is America. It’s not supposed to matter. But it does. Different people interpret ethnic stuff differently, but few people say that it won’t be considered.  Yesterday, a guy was shot in killed by a police officer in Miami. A news report included “[The guy who was shot] was black. [The officer’s] race was not immediately known.”  So at least to the reporter who wrote that, race matters.

So if we want to decrease inappropriate violence, isn’t it a good idea that we decide in advance what the Rules of Engagement for police are?

There have been several incidents where police have shot a kid carrying a toy gun by mistake.  (What a moronic idea toy guns are.  Along with all the kill-them-all video games.  What are parents thinking?)  

So let’s set the stage.  It’s a hypothetical, but it will happen.  It’s 10 PM.  Most kids are off the street, but not all of them.  An officer sees someone the size of a 14 year old boy carrying a realistic looking (but unbeknowst to the officer, a toy) gun.  The kid is 30 feet from the officer.  The light is bad.  What do we as a society want the officer to do?

This is the part where I’m supposed to give you my answer. But my answer is just that - Mine.  I’m not in charge of society.  It will be the collective answer which the officer will be judged by.  So, tell me what the officer should do.   Warn the kid, such as “Drop the gun!”  Ok, if the officer does that, how long does s/he wait?  How often does s/he repeat the warning?  Wait until s/he sees a muzzle flash and knows that the gun is real?  Duck?  Withdraw?  What if the gun is pointed at the officer?  Come on, people, if we are going to judge the officer - and we will - let's have the decency to tell the police what the rules are.  

And that’s just one scenario.  In the summer, should an officer approach someone with a long coat to see if s/he is hiding a gun?  How should an officer deal with people who are legally carrying a weapon openly?  (Yeah, yeah, it doesn't happen in Chicago, but it happens in lots of places.)  How about if they are doing so in a strange place?  Should an officer question someone who just “doesn’t belong”?  Or when someone is acting furtive or are apparently nervous? Should the officer ever consider their race or distinctive clothing?  Maybe, maybe not.  But our public servants need to know what we expect.

We owe it to everyone to have this conversation.


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