Should it be OK for a police officer to shoot at an unarmed suspect who is running away? How about at a moving car? Or at a suspect who poses a danger only to himself?
Questions like these go to the heart of the nationwide debate over policing and the use of force. They are also at the core of a controversial 30-point plan for revising standards for police encounters with suspects and others.
The Jan. 29 report from an organization of law enforcement leaders called the Police Executive Research Forum has rattled a lot of cages in the police world because it calls for a standard of conduct higher than that purportedly set by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of Graham vs. Connor.
"The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene," the court wrote in Graham, "rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."
By this standard, an officer should not be disciplined or otherwise held to answer for acting the way any other reasonable officer would have acted in the same situation, faced with rapidly evolving circumstances, often with the lives of bystanders and the officer on the line, having to make split-second decisions. Many officers embrace that ruling: Don't judge us, they argue, if you have never walked in our shoes, do the work that we do and face the same dangers we face daily.
And it's a fair point, to an extent. A police officer cannot always know that the fleeing suspect or that the driver of the moving car is unarmed, or that the unhinged suspect won't hurt anyone else. When officers can be subjected to discipline for doing what any other reasonable officer would do in the same situation, they may well choose simply not to engage a suspect at all — the so-called Ferguson effect. And then, of course, they might subject themselves to criticism for allowing the suspect, who just might turn out to be armed and dangerous after all, to hurt bystanders. How can police protect and serve under those circumstances? And how can police departments, review panels and courts hold officers to a more restrictive standard than the one set forth by the Supreme Court?
But that argument is based on a misunderstanding of Graham, both by officers who criticize the proposed PERF principles and those who have recommended them. Nothing in the court's decision creates a standard of police conduct forever and for all time, or prevents today's standard for "reasonableness" to be higher tomorrow.
To the contrary, the court's decision contemplates standards that rise over time with innovations in police training and tactics.
The PERF principles should be seen as a serious attempt to elevate what is deemed "reasonable" police conduct in any given situation. Few officers in 1989, the year of the Graham decision, would have seen it as a normal part of police duties to de-escalate tense encounters with suspects. Nor would all officers today, but many would, and over time de-escalation should be expected to become a standard part of a reasonable officer's conduct.
Of course, the final verdict on which de-escalation strategies are deemed sound and which should be considered reckless will come only after years of experimentation and identification of best practices.
To brush aside any effort to change standards of reasonableness nationwide is to artificially depress standards everywhere. The court did not require reasonableness of an officer's conduct to be judged by the lowest common denominator.
And as training and tactics are upgraded in one department, they ought to become part of the reasonableness standard that is expected in other departments.
It is incumbent upon officers to engage meaningfully in the discussion of raising standards and not merely reject the 30 PERF principles — most of which, after all, sound quite reasonable: The sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything a police agency does; officers should intervene to prevent other officers from using excessive force; officers should promptly render first aid.
Police officers do work that most of the rest of society would have difficulty understanding. Their perspective on the proper use of force is essential. Let's hope they take part in the discussion.