Why Do Police Have To Shoot?

Donald J. Mihalek | Vice President, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation

64 seconds: “Come on, man, drop the knife”… “Come on, let’s drop it,”
60 seconds: “Shoot me!”… “No, drop the knife!”
42 seconds: “Nobody wants to hurt you.” … “What’s going on, man?”
21 seconds: “Do – not — move”
5 seconds: “Seriously man, what’s you’re name”
1 second: “Drop it”

This was the final minute before Scout Schultz, the twenty-one-year-old Georgia Tech student, who had longstanding mental health issues and left three suicide notes before calling the campus police to report an armed and dangerous subject (himself,) was fatally shot by campus police on September 16th, 2017.

What followed was the all too familiar reaction to police use of force incidents: protests, hand wringing, calls for better training, and for better non-lethal force options. While these could all be valuable discussions, they mask the complexities and split second decision-making involved in police a use-of-force incidents.

In the 1989, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham vs. Connor that police officers can use force, including deadly force, based on a totality of the circumstances. Those circumstances include what an officer believes about the suspect (from radio or witness reports,) type of crime involved, observations as to the mental state of the subject, what they say and whether the officer reasonably fears the death or bodily injury of himself, fellow officers or members of the public, to name a few. That is a lot to process, evaluate and decide on a response in 64 seconds.

In the tragic Georgia Tech incident, the suspect was “non-compliant,” the officers gave clear commands and the subject chose to ignore them. The suspect was also holding an object that appeared to be a knife — a deadly weapon.  This perceived threat to officers was based upon the totality of the incidents circumstances.  Sadly, this is not an isolated fact pattern and many officers have been assaulted or die in such circumstances.

Some are now saying it was only a multi-purpose tool.  It doesn’t really matter, it can be used to kill, as can a baseball bat, iron, rake, stick or any other hard object.  During the 9/11 attacks, the terrorists used box cutters — a seemingly innocuous tool converted to deadly use.  ‎

The Supreme Court has sided with an officer’s perception of objects for decades and objects can be deceiving.  Recent situations where “vaping pipes” have been aggressively pointed at police officers by suspects, have ending in use-of-force responses. Were the actions of these officers’ justified? In almost every case the answer will be “yes.” If a police officer believes it is a weapon, the suspect is non-compliant and the perceived weapon is about to be used to harm the officer, they are lawfully permitted to use force.

Law enforcement officers have neither the time or the ability to read the minds of a suspect in order to determine if a threat is real. To stay alive, they must assess, react and respond. Those who do not, or do not do so quickly enough can and have died.

A 1988 Calibre Press study proved that a suspect can cover approximately 21 feet of ground before and officer could draw their weapon and respond – dubbed the “21 Foot Rule.” The Force Science Institute, run by Dr. Bill Lewinski, did further studies, which showed that a suspect can cover approximately 7 feet per half second.  The average officer response to a threat takes 2-3 seconds.  This means that an armed subject could charge an officer from 28 feet away and deliver a lethal blow before the officer could make the decision to fire to defend himself. Time works against an officer in every such an encounter. ‎

While no law enforcement officer take the oath to protect and defend intent on shooting people, the failings of our nation’s mental health system appears to force our police officers to become street therapists, and in a world where this “therapy appointment” lasts but a few critical seconds, this societal demand can have a tragic outcome.

It would be helpful if the knee jerk Monday morning criticism of law enforcement use of force incidents stops and a real conversation of mental health takes its place. It’s also instructive to keep in mind that in the vast majority of cases turned into Cause célèbre, the officers’ actions are later found justified — and in line with the law.

Donald J. Mihalek is executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the largest professional association exclusively representing police officers.


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