The Balance of Power & the Use of Deadly Force

State police in Arizona are apparently furious with a San Francisco man for posting a description of a terrifying traffic stop several nights ago. These police seem to think the officer’s display of a weapon and his aggressive, confrontational actions were justified by a mistaken report that the car was stole.

A Milwaukee police officer shot a young black man after a foot chase, and the police seem to think the shooting and subsequent death are justified because the dead man was holding a gun. They haven’t said the gun was ever pointed near or at the police officer who shot, merely that the gun was visible after the man had fled the scene of a traffic stop.

Are we allowed to hold police officers to a higher standard than George Zimmerman or any other vigilante? Can we expect and insist that deadly force not be used first by the police unless there is an imminent danger of the use of deadly force? Can we insist that that the police not treat a traffic stop, even of a car reported stolen, as a situation in which the officers are a split second from death in the absence of other, aggravating factors?

Being a law enforcement officer is dangerous work. It’s almost as dangerous as living while being a person of color. But we give police officers in this country firearms as the ultimate protections against violence, not as tools to escalate situations. There are other ways officers can minimize risks in traffic stops and foot pursuits. We give officers in many jurisdictions body armor to reduce risks from unexpected gun fire. They aren’t absolute protection, but they improve an officer’s odds to counter-balance the restraint we expect armed officers to show and the risk that such restraint accepts.

Threatening to shoot an unarmed man, as happened in Arizona, or shooting a man holding a gun, apparently before the gun was aimed, let alone used, are examples of officers escalating a situation instead of defusing it. This is not why we employ police officers. We aren’t hiring bullies to rule by fear; we’re hiring and training people to control and defuse situations. Haven’t you heard the slogan, “To Serve and To Protect”? We, the citizens, are the ones to be protected and served, not the officers in blue or tan.

Any man or woman who can’t be better than the criminals they are called to deal with shouldn’t be an officer, or at least shouldn’t be on duty, plain and simple. Those in authority are supposed to be the best of us, not the angriest or most aggressive.

I hope the police in Arizona can see why any motorist, tourist or otherwise, would be shocked and horrified by casual display of tools of deadly force, let alone specific and explicit threats of deadly force, when the motorist no legitimate reason to expect such violence.

I hope the police in Milwaukee can differentiate between a threat of eventual deadly violence and the threat of immediate deadly violence. I hope the police can even allow someone to escape when violence hasn’t already been committed rather than escalate the situation into a violent one.

The police need to be the best people in a confrontation, not merely the best armed or the ones best defended after such a situation.


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