*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on September 4, 2017. It can also be found online here.
Sometimes, police must shoot to keep the peace. When used effectively, this results in safer cities. When done wrongfully, it inflames society.
The question is how police can best wield deadly force. The 2015 Colorado state law mandating local law enforcement report and review shootings is a good start. In Minneapolis, where a police officer fatally shot an unarmed Australian woman, the acting chief has announced police must turn on body cameras for “any call.”
But this technological solution treats the symptoms of police shootings that countrywide cause roughly 1,000 civilian deaths each year.
The problem is deeper: to reduce wrongful shootings, cops should reinforce an ethical code that, like soldiers, accepts deadly risk as inherent to their professional responsibility.
An Army officer with deep respect for law enforcement, I recognize that cops and soldiers are different: one fights wars abroad, one polices the peace at home.
Yet, ultimately, both protect and serve Americans.
And ethical codes can be written down, but more typically are unofficial and informal rules of thumb. Cops and soldiers have them, but some in law enforcement appear to have picked up a few bad ones.
These wrong-thinking cops seem to have adopted “the first rule of law enforcement,” made famous in the film, The Untouchables, in which a policeman advises, “Make sure when your shift is over, you go home alive.” This line could’ve been spoken by James O’Neill, commissioner of the New York City Police Department, who just said, “Not one of us signed up to never return to our family or loved ones.” Another officer, on trial, noted an expression heard often amongst cops: “I’d rather be tried by twelve than carried by six,” a preference to face legal dishonor instead of potential peril.
So some cops put fear of policing’s personal consequences over their professional responsibilities. When some police feel threatened, their ethical code tells them to fire first.
There’s another option. Soldiers know shoot-or-not scenarios well. As a lieutenant, near Fallujah, Iraq, we had teenagers that would come a little too close, linger too long, near our fighting positions. Were they bored kids? Or feeding information to the insurgency?
One hot day, they started firing golf ball-size rocks at us with a weaponized slingshot. The right strike could have killed. Several soldiers wanted to shoot, which would have been justified. But we held fire – in part because soldiers expect to risk death.
Philosopher Michael Walzer calls this moral principle “risk acceptance.” He tells the story of a World War I soldier that heard noises in a house’s cellar where enemy troops recently passed. The decision: toss in a grenade to eliminate the threat, or the chancier choice, to clear the underground room and ensure it wasn’t filled with civilians.
That soldier didn’t throw his grenade. He went in and found civilians. This is proper moral conduct at war, which is to say, “if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers’ lives, the risk must be accepted.”
This warrior’s code shows up in less formal ways, heavily influenced by Tennyson’s line that warriors are “to do and die.” Consider the saying among soldiers and Marines, “death before dishonor.” Or paratroopers that sing, “If I die on the combat zone, Box me up and ship me home.” In northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters are called Peshmerga, which translates, “those who face death.” Collectively, these underline a truth: soldiers expect death may come in the conduct of their duties.
The slingshot kids? They were just bored. We’ll never know for sure, but at least we didn’t create several new insurgents, or enrage a family and city.
Similarly, good cops, when called to a burglary, upon finding an open door and likely subjects inside, do not pull back and call an artillery strike. They maneuver into the building at no small hazard to themselves. They accept the risk because that’s what police officers are expected to do. This is the professional standard.
Cops aren’t warriors, yet, in this narrow way both have a common obligation to show restraint, even at personal risk, in protecting the public. If cops re-emphasize this responsibility, then they might just reduce some of these tragic shootings.