Police Safety vs. Citizen Safety

Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    6-20

ABSTRACT:  The current uproar in the U.S. about police shooting those they detain or other citizens can be explored through one’s position on the trade-off between police safety and citizen safety.

KEY WORDS:  police, deaths in custody, public safety

Shooting deaths and other deaths of people being arrested or stopped by police have been greatly in the news lately.  The number of these deaths seems to be very small in comparison to the total number of police-citizen encounters, but the deadly outcomes of these individual incidents often seem to be unnecessary to many citizens.  The discussion of this issue, much as the discussion of many issues in our press and social media, has been almost entirely outrage versus defense rather than taking a closer look at why these outcomes occur.

Most of these incidents involve interactions in which (1) a citizen makes a sudden move that police think might indicate that the citizen is bringing out a gun or making some other move that could theoretically endanger the police, (2) a citizen physically “resists arrest” (will not submit or cooperate), or (3) a citizen is fleeing from police after being detained.  Police are trained to assess and respond to each of these circumstances in prescribed ways through their department’s “rules of engagement,” although circumstances they encounter may vary from what they were told about in their training.  In addition, rational judgment by police (and citizens, too, of course) is difficult in the heat of a dangerous situation.  Minimizing total harm in these situation (to citizens and police) is no doubt the overriding concern in developing these rules of engagement, but in the situations that are publicized, at least, the citizens usually come out worse off than the police, which results in the current outrage.

Existing prejudicial beliefs and attitudes among police increase the potential for police misconduct, and incidents regarding Blacks are being reported more frequently now with video evidence.  There is probably similar police misconduct with regard to other minorities as well.  The media reporting that we get is misleading in that it focuses on the sensational and the most emotional which has the effect of giving a distorted sense to viewers of the percentages and proportions.  This does not mean, of course, that even a small number of mistreatment cases should not be corrected, regardless of why they happen.

In regard to what citizens’ do to contribute, we know that citizens would come out better if they did not resist the actions of police.  If citizens do resist, then a physical struggle begins which may involve physical restraining, use of batons, use of a taser, or even shooting.  Occasionally death may occur if a chokehold is used too long or if officers kneel on the back or neck of the citizen too long.  The tendency to resist police is naturally but unfortunately stronger in those who have been disrespected or humiliated by police in the past and in those whose cultural groups have developed an assumption through experience that they are likely to be mistreated (at least disrespected) by police.  Resistance to police for these reasons makes the likelihood of injury or death to detainees even greater.

Citizens are also well-advised not to make any sudden moves, especially getting something out from under clothing or from pockets or containers without informing the police of what they are doing and then doing it slowly, with permission.

In a few cases when a citizen flees after being detained, officers shoot the citizen, usually in the back. 

Police departments naturally want their officers not to be harmed in their encounters with citizens, but many of the fatal incidents seem to result in exoneration of police on the basis of a “feeling” on the part of the policeperson(s) that they were in danger (e.g., a detainee making a move to get something out from under clothing or from a pocket or bag or glove compartment in a car, before police can see what it is that they are getting).  Using deadly force in these circumstances is apparently legal under at least some departments’ rules of engagement, but as a psychologist, I know that a person’s judgment about whether he is in danger is often incorrect if the danger is irrationally exaggerated (out of fear) in the mind of the person who “feels” that he is under threat.  Perhaps it would be better (fewer deaths but still sufficient safety for officers) if officers were required to have the object being obtained by a detainee at least partially in view before firing.  Some say that this is waiting too long, but it seems reasonable to think that an officer already pointing a gun at someone could fire upon actually seeing the gun or knife that was being gotten before the citizen could aim and fire that gun at the policeperson.  There could still be mistakes in perception—something looks like it could be a gun when it isn’t, but this change in the rules could prevent some citizen deaths while still providing officers adequate safety.  Most people would agree that the officer need not wait in every situation for the citizen to fire a gun before protecting himself/herself, and most people would agree that the officer may protect himself/herself if the object is a toy gun that is reasonably indistinguishable under the circumstances from a real gun.

A similar question arises when a citizen has a knife or brings out a knife from within clothing, etc.  I have heard claims by police that a person with a knife who is 15 feet away from the policeperson can still harm the policeperson if he/she charges the officer, before the policeperson can fire the gun that he has already aimed at the citizen.  This does not seem correct to me, though I have not heard a detailed physical justification of how this is possible.  At the least, requiring visual identification of weapons would result in far fewer deaths of citizens than the additional number of policepersons harmed by having to delay shooting citizens until they could identify a weapon.

The argument here is that a significant number of citizen deaths could be avoided at the cost of only a few additional police injuries or deaths if the rules of engagement were changed and explained in this new way to officers.  Of course we don’t want officers to die either, but it seems that officers could still stay safe enough by using different rules.  The risk of injury or death to officers should be kept as low as possible, but not at the cost of a larger number of citizen deaths.  There will be concern that if such a change in the rules were made, fewer people would seek employment as police officers, but the dangers to police can never be fully eliminated and the risks to police officers cannot be made to be zero.  In my opinion, people should not be killed simply (only) for resisting police or fleeing from police.

Another major issue concerning police behavior is the us vs. them attitude that many police adopt.  They encounter so many people who have broken the law or who resist arrest that they can easily come to see everyone as being either guilty or potentially dangerous—even citizens who have not broken the law.  This attitude contributes a prejudice or preconception of what is likely to be the case in their interactions with all citizens.  A policeperson with this attitude (any person that I detain is likely to be guilty and dangerous) will treat all citizens with greater harshness and disrespect and will be more likely to shoot a detainee than if his/her attitude was

more balanced–something closer to “presumed innocent until proven guilty”.  (I have seen this same problem in psychiatric inpatient wards, where staff over time come to have a jaded and contemptuous attitude toward persons who are frequently admitted due to their erratic behavior or their danger to self or others.  This negative attitude spreads to their views of all of the patients when staff find that their efforts to help these people are so often ineffective.)

Citizens should consider what kind of people we want policing—the biggest and strongest, the most violent, or those who are motivated primarily by the desire to serve the public.  It seems likely that there are more persons employed as police, as opposed to most other professions, that secretly like the authority of the badge and like to exercise that authority whenever possible.

The dangers that policepersons face and the frustrations that they experience when citizens resist or run leads to the “blue wall” mentality, where some officers falsify arrest reports to justify their behavior and refuse to report accurately the unauthorized behavior of their fellow officers (expecting that their fellow officers will also cover for them whenever necessary).  These attitudes are difficult to avoid, but leadership can do so by constant support for officers’ needs and emotional issues and constant reiteration of the department’s expectation of firmness, fairness, and compassion toward citizens, even those who have broken the law before.  The bodycams that police are starting to use should help with the problem of inaccurate reporting.  The support expressed for police by persons in neighborhoods in which policepersons are known as individuals and appreciated for their help and objectivity and will also help to keep attitudes balanced (and is a definite bonus of neighborhood policing on the ground).

Another frustration for police is attempts on the part of citizens to escape after being detained.  Naturally we do not want persons who are a public danger (as in planning to harm someone) to escape and harm others, but perhaps it is not that great a problem if a few non-dangerous detainees do escape.  We would expect police to do everything reasonable physically to stop such escapes, but it does not seem reasonable to take a detainee’s life (or even pose a threat to it through shooting) versus the alternative of letting him go and starting some sort of hunt by the larger police force for such a person.  Even someone who was suicidal would be better off escaping than losing his/her life.  The underlying issue is how strongly we believe that police should always be in control and should use increasing force to maintain that control, all the way up to deadly force.  We do not want the public to think that they can flout the authority of police without consequences.  Escapees should be hunted and captured, and police may do all they can physically to detain someone before escape, short of shooting or otherwise killing them, but the public would probably rather have a few detainees escape than have them shot in the back.  There is no shame in police being unable to stop someone from escaping—sometimes detainees are simply bigger and stronger, but escapees will eventually be caught by the larger police force.

Even more critical to the citizen-police relationship is how police handle all detainees.  What we see on television, at least, shows police patting down every person and handcuffing many of them even while still deciding whether to arrest them.  Apparently every person who is detained and given a ride in a police car is handcuffed.  (I do not personally know the actual practices of police in general, which may vary from this characterization.)  Again the underlying question would seem to be how much control police need in order to guarantee their own safety (and to guarantee that detainees do not escape).  Being handled in this way

(suspiciously, harshly, pat-downs, handcuffs, lying spread-eagled on the ground) would feel insulting to any citizen, most of all to those who are innocent, which must be at least half of all those detained.  If police are using these procedures on everyone detained, then by making themselves safer, police are infusing more hatred and fear of themselves in the public that they supposedly serve.  Perhaps police should be asked to make judgments about the dangerousness of each detainee before applying these practices selectively.  On the other hand, we can understand if police would not wish to allow any detainee to still have a gun or knife during the encounter, and there would be no way to guarantee this without “patting down” every person detained before further evaluating what needs to be done.

In a number of the videos that I’ve seen of encounters resulting in death, the death could have been avoided if police had simply waited instead of acting to bring things to a head.  In these cases, it seemed very likely that with more time and peaceful waiting, the citizen involved would have become more amenable to what police wanted.  This is especially true for those with mental problems.  Once again, police don’t need to be in such complete control that they cannot keep themselves under control and wait for a citizen to adjust to the situation, realize that they will gain nothing by resisting, or come to be willing to comply based on the officers’ calmness and non-threatening behavior of waiting.

Another difficulty in police work is that most cities use police to deal with domestic disturbances and mental health crises for which police are poorly prepared.  These circumstances can often be de-escalated with calmness, patience, empathy, and understanding (together with firm boundary setting, of course).  It would seem wise to use teams of a policeperson (in case violence does occur) plus another person who is more trained in handling upset people.

Of course, each situation is different, and police need to have latitude to fit their handling of each person to that unique person and situation, but, for example, perhaps checking for weapons only on people whom they have reason to suspect might carry weapons (a judgment call) and handcuffing only those whom they have reason to suspect might try to escape (again, a judgment call) might lead long-term to more cooperation from citizens in general without too much danger to police or inconvenience to authority.  Citizens could all understand that anyone fleeing from police detainment would automatically be sought out as a “wanted person” until found and would be interrogated until their situations can be clarified.  This policy would probably result in more injuries to police, but the gain in trust for police might be worth it.  This is a balancing of values that citizens should struggle with, not just police departments.

Some things that would decrease police mistreatment are—

  • changes in rules of engagement to reduce the use of deadly force
  • train police that simply feeling in danger is not sufficient to justify deadly force
  • train police in de-escalation methods and require de-escalation attempts in every incident (including slowing down the process and waiting for detainees to calm down)
  • require actually seeing a weapon on the part of detainees before deadly force is used
  • authorize police to allow non-imminently dangerous detainees to flee if the only alternative is shooting them in the back
  • hire police primarily for public service motivation rather than desire to gratify personal needs for power and control
  • change procedures to make it easier to fire police whose behavior (in comparison to the behavior of fellow officers) shows a likelihood of continuing mistreatment of detainees (including eliminating presumptions of innocence due to feeling threatened)
  • change police culture to be outward-oriented, toward polite, compassionate service, instead of emphasizing the demonstration of power and control and being inward-oriented (us vs. them)
  • use teams of police and human services personnel for all domestic dispute calls, all situations involving a citizen threatening to harm other citizens, and all situations where the mental functioning of a citizen is at issue
  • change laws so that it is easier to convict police of injury or death (by changing the understanding of what is “reasonable” action in various situations)
  • drastically reduce the number of handguns among the public and therefore reduce the number of situations in which detainees have/use handguns
  • authorize police to handle citizens based on assessment of dangerousness rather than having the same procedures (frisking, handcuffing, etc.) required for all situations

We voters should consider what sort of rules of engagement should govern police actions, and what kinds of people we want doing our policing.  A police force with more officers who value law and order but do not need to feel bigger than other people could be just as effective in controlling crime.