By Chip Kain
A protestor in Ferguson, Mo., recently marched holding a sign that read “STOP KILLING US.” Police could respond with a simple statement, too: “STOP ATTEMPTING TO KILL US, AND WE WILL.”
Police officers are required to do an increasingly difficult, if not impossible, job and they are required to do it in a climate where split-second decisions made under unbelievable stress are second guessed by an uneducated public, politicians, and law enforcement administrators with varying degrees of knowledge and ample time to pick apart decisions made on the street.
Ultimately, the belief that police brutality and excessive force are a problem in the United States is simply wrong. The belief that police routinely overuse force is a dangerous myth, one that perpetuates stereotypes of the racist heavy handed cop who is quick to result to violence to solve problems, when the opposite is reality. The belief that the police are often too heavy handed is one that is tearing apart one small town in Missouri and dividing a nation along racial lines and creating an “us versus them” mentality between the public and law enforcement.
A police officer shot, and killed, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and a national movement against police brutality and local rioting followed the revelation the 18 year old adult male was unarmed when he was killed by a Ferguson police officer. Whether the media finds it relevant or not, Brown was a violent criminal, who used his size and stature to intimidate a storekeeper during a robbery for tobacco products and he was also a user of narcotics. The former was revealed in a video of Brown committing a robbery and the latter was leaked to the press from the official autopsy.
Ferguson is a municipality near St. Louis with a population of more than 21,000 persons. Since the 1990 census, when the city was more than 70 percent white, Ferguson underwent a major demographic change to more than 70 percent black. Obviously, the killing of a young adult male, who happened to be black, by a white police officer sparked outrage; however it is important to remember Michael Brown is dead and no amount of protesting or destruction of property will ever bring him back to life. Brown, age 18, was not a “teenager” per se, he was an adult at the time he assaulted a Ferguson police officer and attempted to illegally disarm the law enforcement officer. It seems from reports from law enforcement in Missouri that Brown made the decision to assault a police officer, with tragically permanent ramifications including the loss of his life.
Allowing the assumption that the officer in the Ferguson situation was in the process of making an arrest based upon probable cause or an investigative detention based upon reasonable suspicion, on the surface, the use of deadly force appears to be justified legally, regardless of how upsetting this situation is to the people of Ferguson.
The most recent statistics provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation hold that local police officers kill more than 400 people each year in the line of duty; however, the latest statistics from 2012 show that 48 law enforcement officers were killed feloniously in the line of duty. Even more overwhelming, roughly 10 percent of police officers in the United States (approximately 52,000 out of 520,000-plus lawmen) were assaulted by criminals in 2012, with 14,678 officers sustaining injuries. Of the officers injured in 2012 (the last year for which complete data is available from the FBI), 15 percent were assaulted during arrests. Of all the assaults on law enforcement officers, 80.2 percent were attacked by unarmed persons using “personal weapons” that include hands, feet, and other body parts.
But how often is force used or threatened against the citizenry in the U.S.? The United States Department of Justice estimated that in 2008 police used or threatened to use force in only 1.4 percent of 40-million encounters with the public, an astonishingly low number if one is to believe the police brutality hype gripping the nation. Further, statistics released in 2002 by the DOJ showed that only about 8 percent out of complaints of excessive force “justified disciplinary action.” Assuming a constant rate of complaints and a constant rate of sustained excessive force allegations, out of the almost 40-million citizen contacts in 2008, far less than one percent involved the use of excessive force by police.
Images of excessive force and brutality do come to mind- such as the Danziger Bridge incident following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans where police officers fired their weapons upon a group of unarmed persons that posed no threat to the officers and subsequently covered up the truth and concocted a story that vindicated the officers involved- temporarily until the truth came to light. Those incidents in law enforcement are few and far between when the numbers are considered.
What the people in Ferguson, as well as all other protesters across the nation rallying against the supposedly rampant problem of police brutality, need to do is educate themselves about the very issue that has them so upset. Instead of arming themselves with bricks, firearms, and Molotov cocktails, they should arm themselves with the knowledge that the police interact with a very small number of people each year, threaten or use force against a small percentage of those people, and use excessive force in an even smaller number of occurrences.
Those upset with Brown’s death ask how a police officer can use a firearm against an unarmed person, a question that is difficult to answer precisely without all the facts; however, police officers use case law from the Supreme Court of the United States, including Graham v. Connor (1989), which guides officers to consider the seriousness of a suspect’s crime, whether he poses a threat, and whether he is resisting arrest by fighting the police or attempting to flee apprehension.
The current push in law enforcement is professionalism, and the numbers clearly show police officers in the United States constantly perform their duties within the parameters set forth by the courts and the laws of the land. The crowds of protestors want justice that includes an indictment of the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown, but the statistics (and apparently from news reports the witnesses of the encounter between Brown and the officer) tend to suggest the shooting was likely within the professional standards of acceptable police practice.
Police force should be continuously scrutinized by law enforcement leaders and citizens, but the force should be analyzed by those who are educated in what is allowed under the law and what is reasonable. Anyone is capable of educating himself and the necessary court cases that set out the guidelines for force are posted online. Take a few hours to read the law and talk to a police officer and find out what reasonable force looks like when employed by law enforcement officials.
At the end of the day, if communities disagree with the current parameters on the use of force by police officers, they can vote for representatives and government executives who can change the laws, but handcuffing police officers by restricting the use of reasonable force endangers both officers and the public at large.
Police force is never attractive on television, but sometimes ugly scenarios, while completely legal, are just ugly. People sometimes take offense to use of force situations, but more often than not, the police are unfairly attacked and criticized for doing their jobs professionally. Unfortunately not everyone submits to lawful police authority and in order to prevent chaos and anarchy in society, those who choose to resist arrest must be arrested making the use of force necessary. The police officer does not choose for a criminal to resist his lawful authority, the criminal makes that choice. The officer makes the choice as to the force used, and as the statistics show, officers normally choose correctly, regardless of what the activists and protesters state to the contrary.