All police officers experience that moment where they or a fellow officer is placed in the spotlight. We expect to be questioned and second guessed regarding our conduct, especially in a use of force incident. Why did the police do that?
This question often is followed up by comments such as “the police are on a power trip and out of control.” Routinely, internal investigations reveal such statements are based on a lack of understanding about the totality of circumstances at the time of the incident occurred.
Among the most controversial incidents are police response to citizens who are suicidal, delusional, or experiencing a personal crisis or other mental health issue. Unfortunately, such incidents place officers in life-threatening situations caused by the very person the officers are attempting to assist. On more than one occasion, the individual who the officers had every intention of assisting dies as a result of an Officer Involved Shooting (OIS).
Why did the police have to kill him? Why didn’t they shoot him in the leg? The police are on power trips! The police are out of control! Anytime an OIS occurs, an investigation ensues to determine the circumstances leading to the shooting. The one concept which often goes unrecognized is that deadly physical force is synonymous with defensive force.
After Action Reports are valuable tools. The findings provide a police department with the ability to self-evaluate whether new tactics are necessary. The greatest challenge before law enforcement is addressing the constant need to maintain and update training.
The primary reason why police departments are sued is due to failure to train issues. What can we do to function in a more efficient and effective manner? No topic in policing is of greater concern than the use of force.
The LAPD Commission recently revised the way it evaluates police shootings. The LAPD now reviews an officer’s actions in the moments leading up to the incident along with the officer’s use of force. Focus no longer is limited to the justification of the use of deadly physical force at the time of the shooting itself.
Only one line was added to the existing use of force policy. The new policy makes it clear that an OIS can be found in violation of the department’s deadly physical force policy if an officer’s mishandling of the situation led to the shooting.
The new policy at first glance appears to have created a higher level of accountability upon the officers in order to be cleared of any wrong doing in an OIS, but that is not the case. The amendment to the original use of deadly physical force policy is a training issue for the LAPD and any other agencies that follow suit. Officers must recognize that the change in policy is a tool, not a threat.
The new approach is focused on eliminating the likelihood that police will use deadly physical force. LAPD introduced defined mental illness protocols. The agency is requiring its officers to take action focused on de-escalating an incident if circumstances permit.
Prior to the policy change, the commission followed a multi-step process in officer shootings and other deadly force cases. Instead of making a single decision on whether the officer was right to fire, it divides incidents into three separate parts:
1) Determine if the officer’s actions leading up to the shooting were acceptable.
2) Review the officer’s decision to draw his weapon.
3) Review the shooting itself.
These three sections are based on the landmark Supreme Court decision in the case of Graham v Connor. The Court held that all claims that LEOs have used excessive force, deadly or not, during an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure of a free citizen is to be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its objective reasonableness standard.
The Court also held that the reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 hindsight. Often police officers are forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force necessary.
The death of Kamisha Davidson is the incident which led to the LAPD updating its use of force policy. Davidson, a mentally ill woman, was shot by an LAPD officer in November 2011. The commission faulted the officer and his partner for entering Davidson’s apartment without waiting for mental health experts to arrive. The officers heightened the tension by confronting Davidson without a plan and for failing to handcuff her.
Upon review of the totality of the circumstances pursuant to Graham the commission determined the officer who shot Davidson was justified in using deadly force because the officer shot Davidson as she brandished a plastic tube studded with screws.
The Davidson incident demonstrates how deadly physical force is actually defensive force and the value of officers initially taking steps to offset the likelihood of a confrontation. Until this incident, the commission had generally focused on the question of whether an officer is facing a deadly threat at the moment he or she opened fire.
The need for each police department to analyze, review, implement, and utilize policies and procedures, which guide police officers in the lawful performance of their duties is a benefit to the officers, the department, and the community.
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Jim Gaffney, MPA is Law Enforcement Today’s risk management /police administration contributor. He has served with a metro-New York police department for over 25 years in varying capacities, culminating with Executive Officer and PIO. He is a member of ILEETA, IACP, IACSP, and FBI – LEEDA. Jim is a Certified Force Science Analyst. He mentors law enforcement’s next generation as an adjunct criminal justice professor in the New York City area. Jim brings the street into the classroom to prepare students today for their roles as police officers tomorrow. He is CEO of Bright Line Consulting and can be reached via www.brightlinepoliceconsulting.com