The idea that a civilian on the street threatening an officer should not be killed was a key principle leading up to the U.S. Revolutionary War. Even as British troops were surrounded by an angry mob on the night of March 5, 1770, it was the position of the most liberty-minded in the colonies that it was wrong for a government agent to shoot a civilian, even when that civilian was being physically intimidating, and even violent toward the government agent. The killing of five people in that drunken aggressive mob that night by upstanding British soldiers went down in history as the Boston Massacre and became a cause for revolt.
Then, and today, it is understood that representatives of the government can’t go around killing people in a free country. It stops being a free country once that happens.
Officers on duty don’t have the same right to self-defense as the rest of us. They need to put up with a little more crap. They understand that when taking the job and accept that. The fact that an officer has a little less right to self-defense is evident at the most basic level of law. It can even be extrapolated from the Constitution, which goes to great lengths to take the side of the individual over the government when the two are in conflict with each other.
The U.S. Constitution enshrines the idea it is better for some guilty to go free than for one innocent person to be jailed wrongly. In a free country, the greater burden must always be on government, not on the innocent. These reduced rights for the agents of the government under U.S. jurisprudence is one reason why we use the term “civil servant.”
Lethal encounters involving police officers seem to be a prominent part of our age. By extension of the principles enshrined in the Constitution, the lives of innocent civilians should take precedence over those of government agents. Even if that citizen has jaywalked, or committed some other victimless crime, as in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, it doesn’t make it alright for an officer to confront that citizen, get into a scuffle, and then kill that citizen when the officer feels threatened. Unless the citizen is endangering another member of society, the officer, consistent with a smaller government perspective, should continue on his way and leave that citizen alone.
When it comes to safety of a government agent verses safety of a civilian, the civilian is always right. The government, again by extension of the values of the Constitution, has no business aggressively engaging any citizen unless it is specifically coming to the aid of another citizen who is in immediate danger. Under our current system, the police can play a vital role of protecting those needing protection.
The more dangerous situation for an American citizen does not involve that kind of idealized encounter with an officer, where he is protecting one citizen from another. The more dangerous situation is when the police officer is the one protecting himself from a citizen. It may be a real threat or a perceived threat. In exactly that kind of situation, common sense would dictate: If the police officer were not present, there would be no threat to the officer and no threat to the citizen. This common sense reasoning is entirely in line with a smaller government perspective.
The simplest answer in those situations — walking away to defuse the threat — is not the remedy officers are trained to follow. The training an officer is often given is not to remove himself from the situation, but to control the situation even if that requires the situation to be escalated, and for the escalation to possibly risk the life of a civilian.
An officer acting in self-defense is fine. A great way for an officer to protect himself from an attacker is to walk away from a dangerous situation, if not run away. If self-defense of the officer is the goal, then the officer walking away is the most direct path from point A to point B, while the officer standing his ground and escalating the situation is a circuitous path to self-defense. The more threatened the officer feels, the quicker the officer should move away from the threat. Unless the jaywalker is Yosemite Sam and he is firing his double-fisted revolvers all over the place, a police officer engaging a citizen in the name of defending himself is a silly, ineffective, reckless, and illogical idea in a free society. Engaging a citizen in nonlethal situations protects no one, causes unnecessary threat to civilian life, and is an imposition on a free people.
However, “to protect and serve” is not always the goal of law enforcement, nor is the goal to protect the officer, it is for the officer to control the situation. This is entirely contrary to the dated notion of officers serving and protecting that so many Americans still apply to police officers. A police officer most interested in serving and protecting would just walk away from a situation in which the officer and no other person is threatened. From a PR perspective, this may cause the police to look like sissies, but that is certainly better than having police officers who act like thugs. Additionally, protecting human life from a heavy-handed government is certainly more important than public image.
We see in the case of Michael Brown that this policy of controlling a situation is a wrongheaded one.
If the wounded, overweight Brown charged the officer and placed him in danger, as the grand jury determined could have been the case, there is no way the teen could outrun the trained officer. If aggressors start outrunning officers trying to flee danger, the most logical solution is not for officers to pull out a gun in order to kill or maim the more athletic citizen. The most logical and most just solution would be for policemen to spend more time on the track working to improve their times in the 40-yard-dash.
The proper role of government in our lives is standing on the sidelines looking on, only very occasionally becoming involved. Poorer neighborhoods know very well that the police go beyond this role and have become a burdensome and dangerous imposition on our lives. Though terrorism has been a key concern in the post-9/11 world, Americans are more likely to be killed by a police officer on American soil than a terrorist. Curiously, the FBI, which reports national crime data in depth, does not even have an accurate measure of how many Americans are killed annually by the police, causing this very serious national trend to go under-recognized.
The proper smaller government perspective is for the police to look like sissies a little more often than they look like hardened thugs. Anyone who pays much attention to current events is aware that literally ANY encounter with a police officer, even a friendly discussion, could end with a person fined, in jail, injured, or dead if the police officer is in a poor mood. The judicial system can be counted on to take the officer’s side.
That is the wrong position for law enforcement in a free country and does us little, if any, good as a society or as free individuals.
The law and order position that encourages a strong police presence in America is inconsistent with the strong mandate for individual freedom that is seeing a revival in groups on the right and left. This battle is taking place in the Republican Party within groups that self-identify as the tea party and as conservatives. As the wing of the Republican Party seeking to encourage smaller government and greater individual freedom, the general Tea Party and conservative stance on this topic should be clear. The tea party position is that the police should look like sissies; avoiding and possibly running from a threat, a lot more often than thugs; confronting, controlling, and escalating a threat.
The Tea Party stance on the Michael Brown killing should also be clear: the officer should have been trained to just walk away when threatened.