Law enforcement and the communities we serve have gone through a lot over the past several months. Controversial and high-profile cases involving police use of force have led to soul searching and difficult questions. As a law enforcement administrator who is very proud of my chosen profession, and of my fellow deputies and officers, I would like to offer a few thoughts I invite everyone to consider.
Officers are often placed in dangerous situations every day they are at work. Occasionally, these situations require a use of force. One thing is clear — no officer ever wants to take a life.
In the movies, the “bad guy” is easy to see and their intent is obvious and malevolent. They shoot at the officer or they are threatening someone with deadly force. Real life is complex and not as clear.
Officers are forced to make split-second decisions all the time — sometimes about the use of deadly force. Most officers retire having never used deadly force. However, we all know that the circumstance or situation can arise at any time, and we may be called upon to make that judgment.
When an officer feels he or she is in a situation that requires deadly force, that officer’s primary wish is that the situation is clear, that it is easily understood by others and that ultimately he or she made the right judgment decisions.
Sometimes — and appropriately so — the judgment is questioned. In the circumstances that deadly force is used, it is reviewed by a series of people. This includes the department through a deadly force review panel, an inquest jury of citizens, the prosecutor who determines whether it was a criminal act, a federal jury if there is a charge of a constitutional violation, and still another jury if there is a civil suit.
When an officer makes a mistake, he or she is held accountable. As well, the entire department and profession is held accountable. For the officer, there are serious and significant outcomes in terms of employment, possible criminal charges, civil and financial liability, and very importantly, an officer having to live with the decision he or she made. For people who enter this profession to help keep others safe, that impact is very significant.
Law enforcement officers are human beings who do make mistakes, and when we make them, they can have the most serious consequences. This does not excuse or mitigate the fact that a person has lost their life. That is a tragic and unalterable fact.
Officers should not, and cannot, go into every encounter worrying about whether they will go to jail for decisions made in good faith. That is the rationale behind Washington state law that tells the prosecutor the officer must have had malicious intent in order to be criminally charged in a shooting.
Bad faith on the officer’s part is the key. Conversely, while a mistake is tragic, it is not a criminal act.
In 25 years in law enforcement, I have never seen us having as many open, substantive and robust discussions about our training, our policies and our expectations. This is a good thing and I encourage it.
We must continue to communicate clearly and openly about what we do and how we do it. When we commit a bad faith act, we should deal with it openly and honestly. Similarly, when we make a good faith mistake, even if it results in the most tragic outcome, we need to do all we can to support our officers and deputies as they do a very complex and difficult job.
Recently, Sheriff Sue Rahr, Seattle Chief John Diaz and Criminal Justice Training Commission Director Joe Hawe announced changes to training, focusing specifically on how people are treated. You may have heard about “Justice-based policing” – it is about listening, explaining, ensuring equity and providing dignity to everyone we encounter.
These are not naïve or idealistic goals; communication is the key to good police work. It is also the key to officer safety; the better we work with people, the more safely we can do our job. Listening and communicating are not the opposite of officer safety, in fact they increase it. Most officers already do this, but we will emphasize it.
Unfortunately, the current public dialogue surrounding law enforcement, use of force and stories focused on extreme incidents is causing officers and deputies to feel unsupported and the public to wonder what is going on.
The fact is, the changes and balanced training that are the real answer to these questions will take time, commitment, and thoughtful discussion. If law enforcemnt is to be viewed as respected and respectful, wee all need to get out of our corners and have that thoughtful discussion.
Let us focus on improvement where it is needed, so we can support the vast majority of deputies and officers who every day do the good, aggressive police work we need them to do.
Steve Strachan is chief deputy of the King County Sheriff’s Office.