I have spent 20 years in police work, and it has become readily apparent to me that police departments rely too heavily on the use of deadly force.
This reliance begins at the police academy where recruits are taught to fire at faceless targets, which do not talk, sweat or bleed. Recruits are often rewarded for their marksmanship by being given a firearm, a plaque or a medal of commendation.
Throughout their careers, officers receive more in-service training and qualification time with firearms than they do with communication skills and nonlethal use of weapons.
Police work is often tough, hazardous, thankless and frustrating. The authority to use force, especially deadly force, in the line of duty is one of the most controversial and least understood aspects of the job.
Confronted by the threat of violence, officers are resorting to the use of deadly force more frequently. As a result, police departments and communities are left pondering how much force is necessary and acceptable. Unfortunately, no answer satisfies everyone.
The videotaped shooting death of James Quarles by a Baltimore police officer on a crowded downtown street illustrates the problem.
Police were dispatched to the scene after receiving reports that a man was brandishing a knife. The man, Quarles, ignored repeated orders to drop the knife, even when two officers aimed their handguns at him. The confrontation ended when Officer Charles M. Smothers II fired a shot that fatally wounded Quarles.
In nearly all cases, groups and individuals drew their divergent opinions on the shooting from their own standards of when deadly force should be applied. In cases where officers are indicted, the courts are asked to do the same.
Before the 1970s, the use of force by police officers was not monitored as closely as it is today. In many instances, the use of force by a police officer was assumed lawful and proper. As police shootings increased, however, the public concern increased, and the courts began to question and place restrictions on deadly force by police.
In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that officers can use deadly force if it is "necessary" to stop a criminal suspect, when there is "probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or to others."
A later U.S. District Court decision declared that in cases when deadly force is justified, the officer is not constitutionally bound to use nondeadly alternatives first.
Although the courts have established parameters for the lawful use of deadly force, another question looms: Are there situations in which it is lawful for an officer to kill but the use of deadly force could have been avoided?
Perhaps the best way for police departments to answer this question is to provide officers with non-lethal weapons and training on how to use them.
These weapons always have been available, but police departments have been slow to adopt their use. If departments are reluctant to embrace nonlethal weapons and procedures, it's only natural that officers feel the same way. And this reluctance to change will only contribute to the escalation of deadly force by officers.
Until the introduction of hostage-negotiating techniques in the early 1970s, the ability to talk with other human beings was rarely rewarded or taught to police officers.
The police nightstick or baton can be a formidable weapon, but training in its use as an alternative to the handgun is relatively new. Meanwhile, new technology and the downsizing of the military have combined to make more nonlethal weapons available. Improved defensive incapacitating weapons such as Mace are available, as are better body armor, protective shields, and ballistic and riot helmets.
Tactical training in defensive techniques and equipment such as side-handle batons, telescoping and locking batons and long-padded pugilist sticks can provide officers an alternative to the handgun.
Some new police department buildings house gymnasiums for body-building and martial arts training so officers can learn to physically subdue suspects.
In addition, a good police dog can outrun the fastest suspect and hold him until officers arrive.
Other nonlethal devices adapted for police are bean-bag shotguns, laser flashlights to temporarily blind suspects and guns that fire plastic, rubber or compressed-powder bullets.
Stun guns are usually effective, but their use has probably been set back by the Rodney King incident. These weapons supply an electrical jolt that incapacitates a suspect. Police used the device on King, though it did not knock him out.
Some departments have paid lip service to the public's demand for less lethal weapons. They have purchased them, but they sit in the sergeant's trunk and few street officers have been trained in their use.
Training with nonlethal tactics and devices should be continuous. Officers should be rewarded for not using their firearms except when facing imminent deadly danger.
The use of deadly force is an integral part of police work, and officers should be trained to exercise that power without hesitation when the situation arises. They should also be trained to recognize a situation when nonlethal weapons and procedures are viable alternatives.
John F. Doherty, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and a retired captain of detectives from Poughkeepsie's police department.
Pub Date: 8/24/97