It was all over in a matter of seconds. Here's what preliminary reports revealed: Two officers answer a domestic call. A man barricades himself in a bathroom with a knife. The officers are familiar with this guy - he's a mental patient and drug abuser who often turns violent. Inside, a woman screams that the man is trying to hurt himself with the knife, so officers kick down the door. The man bolts - one officer covers the woman, the other covers the man. The armed man then goes after one of the officers who shoots and kills him. All of this takes place in a narrow hallway in a matter of seconds.
The call took place on Christmas Eve and is still being investigated. In the newspaper account of the incident two things stood out: A town official who commented that he's known officers to disarm people with guns and knives; and further comments by readers who believed that the officer should have tried to disarm the man with a conducted-energy device (with which the officers apparently were not equipped) or other less-lethal weapon. Many remarks blamed the officers for not taking down the mental subject without hurting him.
In addition to participating in forums with law enforcement officers, I also belong to some journalism groups. Recently a writer in one of those groups posted about a situation involving the arrest of a young girl who was mistaken for a prostitute. The comments reflected outrage and media bias. Basically - the police are terrible people who are always at fault.
I am sure it won't come as a surprise that much of the media, as well as the public, quickly point fingers at officers involved in these kinds of situations. And, to be fair, there are some unanswered questions about both of these situations. Anytime there is an arrest or a police-related fatality, there are going to be questions, but many of them are anchored in anti-police sentiment and/or ignorance of how police operate.
For instance, in the case of the civilian's death, the idea that the officer should have somehow been able to disarm his attacker is, as anyone who reads this column knows, preposterous. And it's anyone's guess as to whether a mental health crisis response team would have been of value.
As for the second situation, one writer who obviously watches too much television was questioning whether police had read the girl her Miranda rights before taking her into custody, something that was pretty much irrelevant to the takedown.
The point I'm making here is (to use one of my teenagers' expressions) police face a lot of haters out there and leading them to a point of understanding is a tough journey. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
My suggestion for towns that do not have police commissioners or someone schooled in police work at the helm is that public officials who are not police - town commissioners or whoever governs your root organization - need to be educated as to the realities of this job. I suggest a short day's seminar where you answer these questions for them:
- What justifies deadly force?
- When is less-lethal force applied?
- What constitutes resisting arrest?
- When do you Mirandize and under what circumstances?
- How is the department structured? (With emphasis on chain of command)
- What is the arrest process?
- How does the department handle citizen complaints?
- What happens administratively in a police-related fatality?
Most of this is simple, but it's amazing the misconceptions the public, press and public officials often have. Nip those knee-jerk reactions by at least educating your own officials.
Also, consider including some of the media. If they are enlightened they'll be less likely to float rumor and innuendo when push comes to shove.
Carole Moore has served in and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.