Policing is Intrinsically Risky
By Philippe Gastonne - August 06, 2015

When police officers shoot people under questionable circumstances, Dr. [William J.] Lewinski is often there to defend their actions. Among the most influential voices on the subject, he has testified in or consulted in nearly 200 cases over the last decade or so and has helped justify countless shootings around the country.

His conclusions are consistent: The officer acted appropriately, even when shooting an unarmed person. Even when shooting someone in the back. Even when witness testimony, forensic evidence or video footage contradicts the officer's story.

He has appeared as an expert witness in criminal trials, civil cases and disciplinary hearings, and before grand juries, where such testimony is given in secret and goes unchallenged. In addition, his company, the Force Science Institute, has trained tens of thousands of police officers on how to think differently about police shootings that might appear excessive.

A string of deadly police encounters in Ferguson, Mo.; North Charleston, S.C.; and most recently in Cincinnati, have prompted a national reconsideration of how officers use force and provoked calls for them to slow down and defuse conflicts. But the debate has also left many police officers feeling unfairly maligned and suspicious of new policies that they say could put them at risk. New York Times, August 2, 2015

Police shootings have been a major news topic for a year now, dating back to when a Ferguson, Missouri officer killed Michael Brown in August 2014. Social media and video evidence have convinced many Americans police kill citizens far too frequently and without just cause.

Even if we believe this (as your correspondent does), we must also admit that some police shootings are justifiable. Law enforcement officers often have to enter dangerous situations and sometimes they must defend themselves or others with deadly force.

Police officers have the same right to self-defense as civilians, but they also have an additional legal duty that citizens do not. Their oaths obligate police to protect the public from harm, even at the risk of the officer's own life.

People are forgetting that last clause. Note the last sentence in our NYT excerpt. Police officers are "suspicious of new policies that they say could put them at risk."

To be a police officer is to have an inherently risky occupation. We do not conscript anyone into the police. They accept the obligation freely, with full awareness of the risks that go with it. Society gives them privileges like carrying weapons, and protective equipment like body armor. These reduce potential harm, but the risk of harm never disappears.

Police leaders sometimes say their officers' #1 job is to "come home alive." That is completely wrong. The police officer's #1 job is to protect and serve the people in his jurisdiction. That duty overrides his own right to self-preservation. If the two ever conflict, protecting the innocent must outweigh protecting the police.

Consider an example. Suppose a police officer encounters a young child, say 8-10 years old, carrying what appears to be a real pistol. The child raises the object as if to fire. Should the officer fire first?

I would argue the answer is no. No adult, police or civilian, may ever legitimately kill a child. Children are prima facie innocent of criminal intent.

The police officer in this example should not even draw his own weapon because shooting the child should not be an option. He can try to subdue the child with non-lethal force, but he must not kill.

If this reaction costs him his own life, then we should mourn and honor his sacrifice. He acted heroically. A child now lives because he died.

Shooting the child would have been the opposite of heroic: an act of pure selfishness.

Situations are never so clear in reality, of course. Maybe it was a toy gun or some other innocuous object. If it was real, then whoever gave it to the child deserves severe punishment, but the child does not deserve to die. Police must protect the innocent even at the cost of their own lives.

We who are not police officers should not envy the split-second decisions they must make. Yet they are in that position because they asked to be in it.

Policing is an intrinsically risky occupation. Those who do not wish to take these risks should find other work. Someone who can't recognize the limits of his own right to self-defense has no business wearing a badge.

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