In Sacramento, California police officers reportedly gunned down an unarmed civilian stranding in his grandmother’s yard. The shooting of Stephon Clark has, of course, outraged the local community and has raised many questions on the standards and levels of accountability we expect from the men and women in uniform who serve our communities. This shooting is one of many across the nation and a universal pattern seems to slowly be establishing itself. Each shooting is different of course, but in the majority at least it seems that the claim is made that the officers in question feel their lives are in danger in some way, which of course is the only appropriate situation to open fire as well as when armed and lethal combat become completely and clearly inevitable. This, of course, seems to constantly lead to difficult questions raised to establish whether or not an officer’s life was legitimately in danger and if they were right to physical force, up to and including lethal force.
One common problem seems to be that departments lack strict and clear standards pertaining to the rules of engagement. Based on the actions of many of these officers and some of their ultimate acquittals it would seem the policy is to shoot now and ask questions later, nevermind if the victim is holding a gun or a cellphone in the end result. A marine in Afganistan, for instance, may tell you that their rules in the combat zone were very clear. Before opening fire on an approaching individual they were required to exhaust a number of options before resorting to lethal force. This involved verbal warnings, hand signals, and warning shots before shooting to kill was considered an option. This was in a war zone where terrorists often resorted to sending civilians, even women and children to conduct suicide bombings even under the guise of needing some kind of help. Even in a combat zone where anything could happen and lives were at stake there were clear, strict procedures that were in place to minimize the needless killing of civilians. How much truer should this be for our police force here at home?
A line must be established between appropriate force and police brutality. When can a police officer use lethal or nonlethal force when can he or she not? What options are available to officers and should be utilized before resorting to said levels of force? Once these questions are answered their answers must be utilized and strictly enforced, and lest they are forgotten or misunderstood training and refreshers will be a must.
The police officer’s job is to keep the community safe. If people cannot trust that they won’t be shot in their own backyards by the men and women who their tax dollars pay to do that, then it is clear that the police are not doing jobs properly and the members of the community deserve better. It is important that a police officer is able to defend themselves in the field when their lives are in danger but it is also important that they are able to perform their jobs with clarity and that they avoid taking the life of an innocent member of the community. Both sides on this issue would benefit from clearer and more strictly enforced rules of engagement and the training that would need to come with their implementation. This, of course, would only be the first step in establishing a more responsible, accountable, and efficient police force, but we’ll talk about that in the posts ahead.