MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Milwaukee, like many cities and municipalities, has recently revised their policy on use of force by police officers. Some changes are welcome, but others conflict directly with the safety of officers and citizens. This new policy addresses an area that not many policies cover – threatened suicides or people that are currently suicidal.
According to the Milwaukee Times Sentinel, the revised policy calls for officers to “hold the highest regard for the sanctity of human life” and says they should use deadly force only “as a last resort.”
It also orders officers not to shoot a person who presents a danger only to him or herself, such as someone threatening or attempting suicide. The earlier policy did not mention suicide at all.
Police contact suicidal people on a regular basis, and it seems that the public and city politicians don’t consider the outright unpredictable nature of a person bent on killing themselves, or at least threatening or acting in that manner. Police are often caught in a Catch 22 – they’re faced with helping to prevent a suicidal person from killing themselves or others, while also protecting themselves from a person with intent, opportunity, and capability from turning a gun or knife on police. An additional factor is that police officers can be charged with a crime if they don’t “render aid,” as in preventing a suicide.
Milwaukee’s previous use of force policy, dated May 2015, allowed officers to “draw or display their firearms in circumstances where they reasonably believe it may be necessary to use their firearm in the performance of their duties.” The new policy, which went before the city’s Fire and Police Commission on June 6, 2019, also states officers should render aid “as soon as is reasonably possible” rather than in a “timely” manner.
The Times Sentinel article further explained that the revised use-of-force policy also orders supervisors to “attempt” to obtain and review all audio and video recordings from police as well as from bystanders, security cameras and other sources of information after police use force. It is unclear whether this means bystanders will be compelled to produce cellphones with such footage, for example, or whether such cooperation will be voluntary. Video has played a key role in the public’s response to police shootings and police-custody deaths in Milwaukee and across the country.
We may be looking at a series of conundrums, or mysteries wrapped in riddles as officers might be forced to choose between protecting themselves and saving someone’s life. The inherent mental state of a person threatening suicide, especially when a weapon like a gun or knife is involved, and the situation is compounded with the presence of innocent bystanders such as family members or coworkers, is something that officers will have to imagine, assume, or guess – this is a “slippery slope” to coin a legal term. An officer must predict the impending actions of someone who is wholly unpredictable and distraught, and the person’s life, and the officer’s career and life all hang in the balance.
The main problem seen here is the total lack of details, clarity, and guidance. Once again, police officers must break out their crystal ball or tarot cards to predict the future, and the humungous weight of responsibility lies on the officer now, as the suicidal individual appears no longer responsible for their actions. An officer simply must act to prevent the person from harming themselves while simultaneously preventing the person from harming the officer or bystanders.
And one thing we can guarantee – the officer will not receive the benefit of the doubt or full support from the upper echelon of city government, a scenario that has repeatedly proven itself time and time again. It seems that police officers shall be completely perfect, at risk of death, imprisonment, or loss of career, while simultaneously being practiced mind readers of someone whose mind isn’t available for reading.