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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

December 1, 2014 at 12:03 PM

America must re-define when police should use deadly force

In our eye-for-an-eye culture, the threat of deadly force is all the justification police need to return it.

A bullet fragment rests on pavement after authorities shot and killed a man who they say opened fire on the Mexican Consulate, police headquarters and other downtown buildings early Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in Austin, Texas.  (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Laura Skelding)

A bullet fragment rest on pavement after authorities shot and killed a man who they say opened fire on the Mexican Consulate, police headquarters and other downtown buildings Friday, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/ Laura Skelding)

That threat seems the pretext for Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson gunning down 18-year-old Michael Brown during an August altercation over walking in the middle of the street.

In his interview with ABC last week, Wilson – who has since resigned from the force – described Brown as a “very, very large, very powerful man.” Though the two men were about the same height, Brown’s reported 300-pound bulk dwarfed Wilson’s 210-pound frame.

When Wilson directed Brown to the sidewalk, he said Brown responded violently, landing a heavy blow to his face.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to survive another hit like that,” Wilson said.

So the officer pulled his gun and ordered Brown to halt. Wilson said Brown then reached toward his waist with one hand, made a fist with the other, and rushed him.

Wilson fired several shots, taking time to notice that two made Brown’s body “kind of flinch a little.” The last discharge was from just feet away and into the top of Brown’s head.

Assuming Wilson’s account is accurate, Brown was violently aggressive.

But where was Brown’s deadly force?

When did taking a swing at a police officer become grounds for being shot dead? And how is it that the same physical aggression people pay to see in sporting arenas is the same aggression that got Brown – and uncounted others in disturbingly similar accounts – killed by police?

The example of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot dead by police last month, is more convoluted.

Police there responded to a call of someone brandishing a gun that was probably fake. Though it turned out Rice had a pellet gun, video of the incident shows police fatally shooting him two seconds after arriving.

Police had to presume that Rice may have had a weapon, so he did pose the threat of deadly force. But the officers didn’t appear to try to talk to him. They shot first and considered questions later.

Less fuzzy is the case of the man who Austin, Texas, police said had exhibited “violent anti-government behavior” before firing more than 100 shots into downtown buildings Friday. Police shot him dead.

Similarly Seattle police shot and killed Stephen Johnston, 56, in August after he shot up his Queen Anne neighborhood and then fired on police when they arrived on the scene.

Such provocations often require a comparable response. But when there is no clear deadly threat, disparate fatal force remains the go-to police response.

Few would question the difficulty or danger of police work.

Cops must be equal parts psychologist, sentinel, and combatant when responding to crises in real-time.

To carry that burden, they are empowered with extraordinary weaponry and the training to wield it. But we expect police to also use exceptional judgment.

Somewhere, that judgment has become skewed. Re-setting it is a conversation the nation is dying to have.

Comments | Topics: Ferguson, Michael Brown, tamir rice

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