By Chief Scott Hughes
Last week, two police officers ‘resigned’ after failing to use deadly force against an armed homicide suspect. According to media reports, the chief of police told reporters that the two probationary officers’ failure to use force was, “Just inappropriate on our part, unfortunately.” The chief went on to say, “They observed a weapon in the suspect’s right hand, and for one reason or another, they didn’t stop that threat.”
While I have not spoken directly to the officers involved, I speculate one of the reasons they failed to “stop that threat” was due to the current culture of law enforcement in this country.
There are an estimated 800,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. Nearly 300,000 of them are assigned to patrol duties. Additional estimates put face-to-face contacts between police officers and individuals at over 300,000,000 each year.
According to the Washington Post (not the most pro-police media outlet), police officers fatally shoot approximately 1000 suspects each year, making the percentage of contacts vs. suspects killed extremely low.
Despite these statistics, law enforcement officers continue to be vilified and painted with a broad brush as being irresponsibly violent, racist and bloodthirsty. Regardless of how justified and reasonable uses of force are, it’s stunningly common for cops—who risk their lives facing the evilest among us—to find themselves the targets of hatred from the very people they’re sworn to protect.
Cops know that physically surviving a shooting is only the first step. Surviving the aftermath can be just as perilous and difficult, if not more so. Think that gives them pause? Think that sends a shudder down their spines? Think that might surface a temptation to hesitate to use deadly force, even when you know you’re in the right and know what must be done? OF COURSE! Do not forget these cops are human.
Back to the recent situation. First thing, kudos to this chief. We don’t know the detailed facts of this case nor what was said behind closed doors, but given how hard it is to attract and retain officers, how many administrators would have had the conversation he had? Wouldn’t it be easier to reprimand those two officers and keep them on the street?
When an officer is involved in a shooting, the chief and the entire department are involved, too. Everyone feels the heat when the anti-police torches are lit so a shooting is not something any law enforcement professional, regardless of rank or level of direct involvement in the incident, wants. This chief knows that, yet he stood by his dedication to the sworn understanding that sometimes, as a police officer, using deadly force is a must, for the safety of citizens, the community and the officers involved. It’s part of the job. And that job is definitely not for everyone.
At the same time, I believe we must spotlight the difficult paradox these two officers appear to have faced. On one hand, you must decide whether to fire at someone pointing a gun at you and your partner. Justified? Yes. Necessary? Again, not knowing the exact details, let’s say yes. This suspect posed an imminent life-threatening risk. Does the decision to pull the trigger come with the possibility of having anti-cop hordes calling for your badge, your freedom and your head? Does it come with the very real chance that your name will be publicly dragged through the mud and your family may suffer as a result? Absolutely.
But you took an oath, right? Isn’t that your job? That’s a question for you to answer.
What does all this mean for the future of this profession? How many cops are getting hurt or killed because they are hesitating to use force? Is this a new norm? What is the answer? Training? Budgets are tight and realistic training can be expensive. Should administrators prevent this behavior in their own agencies by holding this incident up as an example of poor police work and the punitive response that may come as a result?
I don’t know the answer. But I do know this. If someone looked me in the eye and said police work looks like a no-win situation, I couldn’t tell them they’re wrong.
What are your thoughts on this? We’d love to know. E-mail us at: email@example.com
About the author: Scott Hughes is the Chief of Hamilton Township (OH) Police Department and a long-time Calibre Press instructor.