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Few rules, consequences when US police use lethal force

The wide latitude and extensive legal protections that US police have for using lethal force on suspects have come under attack after the newest police killing of a suspect in a minor infraction.

Protesters hold signs and chant slogans at a rally and march against racism and police brutality in West Hollywood, California on June 14, 2020
Protesters hold signs and chant slogans at a rally and march against racism and police brutality in West Hollywood, California on June 14, 2020

The death of 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, shot while running away from an Atlanta police officer, has boosted calls to sharply reduce officers’ use of their guns and lethal restraint techniques.

It’s a massive job, with 18,000 police departments around the country, each with its own policies.

– Lethal force –

Police departments all have guidelines on the use of force. For the lethal use of firearms against a suspect, most fall back on the “objectively reasonable” standard: whether an officer “reasonably” believed, in a fast-moving situation, whether he or she faced a threat.

That gives police substantial leeway. In a review or if facing criminal charges, they only need to prove that, at the time, they fairly perceived there was a threat. Juries are often unwilling to second-guess them on that basis.

Police departments, in addition, have few stated restrictions on the use of lethal force.

According to the Use of Force Project, which maintains a database on police rules, less than half of the country’s 100 largest police departments require officers to try and de-escalate situations before using their weapons.

One-third do not require officers to give a warning, and less than half require them to exhaust all other alternatives to using force.

And only 17 prohibit officers from shooting at a moving vehicle, unless the vehicle is being used as a weapon.

– Fleeing felon rule –

In 1985 the Supreme Court ruled that police do not have the right to shoot a felony suspect fleeing from them. But they can if they believe the fleeing person, especially if armed, is a threat to them or to the community.

Convictions under the 1985 ruling are rare. A jury was unable to convict South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, who a bystander video showed clearly shooting fleeing Walter Scott in the back on April 4, 2015, in part because the two had first tussled following a traffic stop. That allowed Slager to claim unarmed Scott was a threat.

– Chokeholds –

Chokeholds or “carotid restraints” are widely included in police training to subdue suspects, but have proven to be deadly.

After New York police killed Eric Garner, who was detained in 2014 for selling cigarettes illegally, by placing him in a chokehold, pressure has grown to ban the practice.

But according to the Use of Force Project, only 28 of the largest 100 police departments explicitly prohibit chokeholds or limit them only to situations where deadly force is permitted.

– Little de-confliction training –

Many experts say US police need more de-confliction training, which is credited in Europe with the very low level of police shootings.

US police undergo far less training overall, as little as three months of police school, compared to the three years in some European countries.

According to a 2016 Justice Department study, much of a police recruit’s average 840 hours of study was on police operations (200 hours), firearms skills (71 hours), and personal defense (60 hours). Barely 21 hours was set aside for use of force and de-escalation techniques.

– Lawsuit protection –

Officers are also protected from lawsuits in a shooting death by the “qualified immunity” doctrine.

Established by Supreme Court rulings, the doctrine holds that as government employees performing official duties, police officers cannot be sued, including over mistaken or excessive use of force.

Experts argue that removing qualified immunity would force police to be more careful and boost accountability.

The evidence for that is in the huge payouts that cities and counties make each year to settle excessive force and other claims against their police forces.

Last year New York City paid out $220 million for police-related lawsuits.

In 2016 and 2017, Denver, Colorado was ordered to pay $10.6 million in two separate cases of men, both with mental health problems, who were killed in jail while being restrained. AFP