Time to stop the Police Shoot to Kill policy?

The recent shooting of Walter Scott in the back has made the news not just in South Carolina but around the world and is the latest case of police in the United States seemingly having a low regard for people of a certain colour and for having itchy trigger fingers in general.  I’ve been meaning to write something similar many times before but have always waited as sadly it is seemingly inevitable that one doesn’t have to wait long before similar events happen time and again.

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At least this time it appears at least possible that the officer who committed murder may have to deal with a punishment of sorts.

Around 40% of my readers are in the United States and I know people are of all races and political persuasions and backgrounds so what I’m writing is just my personal opinion having seen nearly 40 years of largely unwarranted police brutality on the news from the USA.

Personally I am against the British Police being armed as are most people in this country though conversely I do think they deserve more respect from politicians and the public.  In many ways the change from police giving a loudmouth drunk a slap round the head with a truncheon to the situation where yobs can be abusive with impunity as police are afraid to touch anyone due to fear of prosecution is a sign of much of what is wrong with the country at present but it doesn’t mean I think the Police have a right to kill anyone.

I think the Police have a near impossible job in a society where they aren’t respected by the minority of the public who happen to generally be the ones who transgress the law.  In the riots of 2011 following the death of Mark Duggan it was noticeable that for several nights the rioting in London and other major cities got progressively worse as the police took a low-key approach.  Whilst many advocated sending the SAS out for a night and laying waste to the criminal youths it was notable that in the city of Manchester where some police took an old-fashioned approach confronting violence with violence, the rioting there quickly petered out in the city as it did elsewhere across the nation once the police were told to toughen up.

As with the United States there are occasional cases where police who fail to live up to the high standards expected of them are seemingly protected from their own criminal acts such as the death of Ian Tomlinson who was innocently walking down the street with his hands in his pockets when he was hit by a police officer wielding a truncheon before the same officer  savagely pushed him to the ground.  The Policeman involved, Simon Harwood, was eventually dismissed from the force and though the incident seemed to clearly be the cause of the death of Ian Tomlinson just a few minutes later, the charge of Manslaughter against the officer was dismissed something that most people feel would not have been the case if the perpetrator hadn’t been in the Police.

It’s precisely these instances are so rare that they stand out and we know that we can all depend and need the police. When it comes to the use of fire-arms it is likely that there are few better trained or responsible in the world.  In the four years to 2012 the British police fired just 18 times with 9 fatalities.  Aside from Ireland and New Zealand our Police are the only ones who aren’t routinely armed.

We do have authorised fire-arms officers and in 2011/12 they were involved in over 12,000 operations but there were only 2 fatalities.  Each time a gun is discharged there is a huge investigation put on all sides and the event becomes almost a national scandal and in 2012/13 the police did not fire a single bullet in the U.K.

“The officers are subject to immense scrutiny and pressure is placed on them and their colleagues on how they explain it,” said Mark Williams, chairman of the PFOA. “The bottom line is, everything they did has to be justified by law.”

And to highlight how rare it is for a British police officer to actually open fire, Mr Williams told Channel 4 News: “I carried a firearm for five years in London, and I never had to fire it. Actually firing a weapon is very rare. The vast majority of them have never fired a weapon.

“No firearms officer wants to shoot someone. It’s a last resort.” He argues that British police officers have the best firearms training in Europe, precisely because the force is unarmed as a matter of course.

Police induced fatalities

Police induced fatalities, incredibly the American total is only those that have been recorded as there is no mandatory requirement to record or investigate such deaths

Of course much is dependent on the culture of the country.  in 2012 0.00013 per cent of the US population were shot dead by the police, compared to just 0.0000035 per cent in the UK but then the USA has much higher public gun ownership and the homicide rates are roughly four times greater too.  Still,a person in Britain is about 100 times less likely to be shot by their own police than a person in the United States.  South Africa is even worse as for every police caused fatality per 100,000 people in the UK is just 1 and in the USA 4.7, in South Africa it is over 30.

In my opinion regardless of the prevailing laws and policies, it can never be right for the police to shoot anyone if there is a way to avoid doing so.  Shooting someone who is running away in the back is just plain wrong, unloading several rounds just makes him cold-blooded and if a police officer in any country gets so unsettled by have someone running away from them that they have to do that then maybe they should look for another job.  That goes for all the other recent incidents of mostly black individuals being shot or even choked to death by the police.

The police should be there to make sure if a law has been broken that they get the individual to court so that the person who is innocent until proven guilty has had their opportunity to speak their case.  If individuals are getting shot because there is a perception that certain classes or colours are less worthy than others then it is the responsibility of the government and society to make sure that the police change their perceptions but also that the citizens learn how to behave and if there are social factors that keep coming up then these should be tackled at source.

Killed By Police circumstances

The circumstances of American citizens being killed by police.

Police in the United States are actually trained to shoot to kill by aiming at the chest area as this is deemed the most likely way to stop an imminent threat. An officer can only shoot at a suspect who poses a life-threatening risk to the officer or members of the public.  Ironically it is argued by some that introducing a shoot to injury police in the USA would not only open up forces to increased mitigation but also increase the levels of police shootings as they would feel even more free to take the risk of shooting people.  Lawmakers have in the past tried to legislate to end the shoot-to-kill policy but have always been defeated.

Perhaps the real problem is that the law states that force has to be objectively reasonable but it would seem what is objectively reasonable to some police officers is certainly not many in the wider society feel.

While it must be true that it is harder to hit an individual in non-fatal areas, the policy of shooting to kill even under the most minor situations seems wrong to me.  In London after soldier Lee Rigby was murdered by Islamic Extremists, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to shoot them dead but even as they charged police, they were shot but not with intent to kill them and indeed they recovered to go on trial and serve their punishment.  This stands in contrast to 25 year old Kajieme Powell in St. Louis who was shot dead for behaving erratically with a knife near police.  Surely this means one of the following, that with sufficient training Police can shoot with a minimum force tactic or that   American Police already have this training but value life less and see themselves more in the role of an enforcer than public servant.

A recent survey into police in Cleveland, Ohio has revealed that police have legitimately shot criminals but also those following police instructions to surrender and even innocent victims fleeing from a dangerous crime area.  Surely in this hi-tech era there must be ways for progress to be made.  If the Police and by extension the State doesn’t value life then how can everyone else be expected to?  Surely a minimum force requirement is something that should be aimed for and if police elsewhere manage not to generally avoid shooting people for no good reason then maybe training needs to be improved too.

jerame-reid-2015_resized_1

It’s not just shootings, even just overnight I woke to finish this post to see that 8 police in California kicked a man for 2 minutes for allegedly stealing a horse. This coming 25 years after Rodney King was repeatedly beaten which even then was an instance of police brutality which shocked the rest of the Western world. Obviously not much has been learned.

Perhaps the quasi militarisation of some police forces simply attracts the wrong sort of person and it is interesting how in some countries police officers have a certain pretentiousness about them.  Every time I visit Paris it is hard not to notice the police strutting round as if they are the most important people on the planet.

I remember on one occasion myself driving to work at 6.20am one dark morning and car drew level with me.  It was obvious they were in the wrong lane for where they wanted to go and they had their music on loud so I didn’t even bother looking at them, presuming them to be the usual lowlife who do such things.  When the traffic lights changed I beat them off the mark and much to their fury the car in the wrong lane sounded its horn and then tailgated me for 100 yards before I realised that the idiot in question had been a police officer.  Fortunately for me at no point did I exceed the speed limit and for about 2 miles round winding urban streets I was followed by the car who was obviously eager for me to go too far, not indicate when turning or for any other minor motoring infringement before he turned back as I headed out of his jurisdiction.   Luckily he is just one of two negative contacts I have had with police compared to hundreds of positive ones not including the several serving and retired police whom I am friends with.

There are bad apples in every profession and in every country but the role of the police is such that we expect and deserve only the best from them.  Similarly they should be given greater respect for the impossible job that they do but it should be remembered that the role of the police is to protect us and to allow the courts and jury to decide upon an individual’s guilty status.  By murdering people or unduly beating them up means they are lowering the status of society generally the very rights and civilisation that they are their to uphold.  Even if some did commit a petty crime their punishment is unlikely to merit death and if it does it should be a judge who decides.  Walter Scott may or may not have committed crimes but unlike the police officer who apprehended him, he was not a murderer.  Surely it is better to have a handful of rogue individuals than starting off with training and a policy of shoot to kill?

We should love the police not fear them.

We should love the police not fear them. Alex Thomson of from Newcastle steals a kiss from PC Heather Clark as she helps police the Edinburgh New Year celebrations. (Photo originally from Daily Mail / Gordon Jack)

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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9 Responses to Time to stop the Police Shoot to Kill policy?

  1. Boyer Writes says:

    Yes, Stephen, I am one of your American readers and my question has always been “why not shoot in the leg and not to kill? …if the person is running away and not threatening the officer with his own weapon. As you said, after that we go to trial etc. I am not certain how it is in England, but our jails are also filled to capacity. This whole question of unwarranted actions by the few is always in the news and it is not helping our race relations in our country either. Our good police, whom we respect, are also getting a really bad deal. There has been much attention to changing gun laws, but it probably won’t happen here. Our country was built on the Old West where everyone had to protect themselves…and property. It is also built on the freedom of choice and Constitutional rights.. We have a lot of people up in our hills and elsewhere that would never part with their “protection”. Sad to say, the problems we face here may be long in getting solved …if ever. I grew up in the days of segregation of the races and after laws were changed, it seemed that everyone was getting a chance at a better education…and life in general. Some have taken advantage of the opportunities and others live off the “welfare society”…with little concern about violence, drugs etc. In the Chicago area, volunteers have to walk children to school to try to protect them from the gangs that do drive-by shootings. In other areas, there are home invasions. Do you think people are going to give up their arms?….not a chance. Back to your subject, there is a great need to change the “shoot to kill” policy. We will see if this happens. We all live in the shadows of violence…whether real or on TV…and the threat of the next terrorist blowing up a mall or at a sports event (as in Boston). Pray for our world….we definitely need it!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it makes little sense to me either. The jails here are overflowing too and sometimes prisoners are released early as they are temporarily unable to incarcerate new arrivals. I think we have the biggest prison population in Europe but also perhaps have too many possible crimes whilst the serious ones aren’t dealt with as severely as they could be. I think you’re right, I can’t imagine it changing in my life time in America which is sad as it means people alive at the early 22nd century are stuck with the same problems as the 18th or 19th centuries only worse because of more deadly guns and perhaps less societal cohesion. I think someone somewhere has to make a start and if it has to be the state then so be it as otherwise nothing will change. The argument over here is always if you arm the police then the criminal element will be more likely to use acquire guns as well. Presumably in this hi-tech world with such an overwhelmingly powerful state, most criminals would be caught quickly without the need to kill or shoot them.

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  2. Fine editorial. In addition to the proliferation of guns in the U.S., poverty-related crime, the challenges these pose for police, specific law enforcement procedures and tactics, and cultural biases regarding race/ethnicity/class, there are other powerful factors contributing to what I would describe as “police misconduct” in the use of force.

    America has never been able to resolve the societal issues of its Civil War. Passions still run deep on both sides, although discussing it publicly or in mixed company is considered taboo. In private, however, such discussions might be seen as inflammatory or even frightening to reasonable people. This dangerous rift has reemerged in recent decades, and has become so pronounced that the nation is literally dividing itself along cultural lines. One side is overwhelmingly white, religiously fundamentalist, radically conservative, pro-gun, and strongly supportive of authoritarian police practices. This group resides primarily in the South, plain states, and in rural areas. The other side is ethnically diverse, secular or religiously moderate, center-left politically, favors gun control, and is far less tolerant of abusive law enforcement. It resides mostly along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in urban zones.

    People who seek careers in law enforcement, just as in the military, are not equally representative across these demographic groups. So-called “righties” are naturally attracted to these types of occupations, while “lefties” are more inclined to avoid them. Despite the professional training required for this work, which may or may not be sufficient, people inevitably bring their cultural backgrounds to their jobs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robert. You’re obviously more knowledgeable about it than I am but at least to many over here, what we read and see is alarming. I’ve read quite a lot recently of how the United States is in someways diverging into 5 or 6 European sized nations due to the differences in cultures, religious and political affiliations and the tendency for moderates in some areas to be overshadowed by hardliners. I wonder if in 100 years if this continues the country might even separate and for those in each area it might even be better in some ways as they can live to their ideals without imposing ideals on others or having them imposed. We have similar situations in our country where often “righties” are into some occupations while areas such as education are famously “lefty”. Thanks for commenting as always!

      Liked by 1 person

      • My pleasure, Stephen. This is a very serious issue. I have given much thought to the possibility of a formal dissolution of the U.S. (having written about it on my blogs), and have concluded that it could not be done peacefully. Despite the obvious regional differences, the American economy is too interwoven for a clean split. Furthermore, such a prospect would leave millions of political refugees isolated behind “enemy lines” (i.e. urban populations in conservative regions, and rural populations in liberal regions).

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  3. What a wonderful post you have written. Brutal, bigoted, and violent treatment of black citizens by white police is a growing epidemic in this country. Many police departments buy used military equipment from the government and it is not unusual to see armored tanks in the streets to quell protests or other public gatherings. Yes indeed, the police have a hard job but there are several aspects to this. An increasing number of citizens are gun owners. This breeds more violence whenever there is a confrontation either between citizens or citizens and police. We tend to arrest and incarcerate more people than any other country and of course, the majority of those imprisoned are black and Hispanic. Our culture is corrupt, our middle class is dying and the public services we offer have slipped to a second world country level. On the bright side, if there is one, are the brave folks who use their cell phones to record instances of police abuse. The man who filmed the murder of Walter Scott made it possible to charge his shooter with murder. That of course begs the question – what of those that are not caught on camera? In my state of Washington, an Hispanic man in a small town was shot and killed in the streets by police. They shot him in the back as he tried to run from them. But the worst instance of police murder was here in Seattle a few years ago. A Native American fellow – a known “street inebriate” as they characterized him – was walking on a downtown street carrying a 3 inch carving knife. He was also deaf.. He made his living as a wood carver. An officer saw him, and from across the street ordered him to put down the knife. He couldn’t hear the cop, didn’t put the knife down and the cop shot and killed him. The cop was not punished, although he voluntarily left the police department. This incident broke my heart and upset many people. I wonder how much longer this can go on before something drastic is done to change the culture of law enforcement in this country.

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    • Thank-you Lisa, I’m glad that you enjoyed the post. I agree that the use of video footage filmed on the street is going to change policing rules in the end. In the U.K. video footage is proving to be the one thing that reliably documents the thankfully very rare and usually much less severe cases compared to the U.S. of police brutality where peaceful protesters are “Kettled” in a restricted area for no good reason. It does make you wonder though how many abuses occur when there is no video evidence. That’s a really tragic story about the murder in Seattle and highlights why everyone should be innocent and not shot (at least until a measure of last resort). It’s really no improvement on the wild west and its not good enough. Few other laws or morals are the same as in the 1770’s and as an outside I think it would be best if some of the founding documents were revised. Even the 1215 Magna Carta that is the inspiration for many of the early American documents insisted that the state could not unilaterally take away property or the life of a person without due process.

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  4. sarij says:

    Stephen, it was interesting to see a perspective from across the pond. Lisa, you may have it the nail on the head. As someone who works with our state police, I see a growing trend of unease between the police and our citizens, as more and more individuals arm themselves. Our gun culture is bordering on absurd. The police are starting to take the view that everyone is armed so tension run high. I agree with another commenter that those who love guns and all they stand for maybe attracted to the job of policing.
    We have forgotten that after shootouts like the ones in Tombstone Arizona, local law officials decided that guns did not belong on the streets. It became illegal to carry guns into town. This is how we tamed the wild west mentality. Sadly, here we go again.
    Killing of civilians should never be acceptable to anyone. But until we change our cultural mindset about guns we will continue to see violence in our streets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree Sarij, it sounds really crazy to me and only a few steps away from the chaos in Syria or Iraq. If we stuck with laws from the 18th century we would still have slaves, people would still be locked up or executed for being witches and we would all farm and produce our own foods. Everything else in life has changed why not guns especially considering how big cities such as Tokyo and London are and how they get by without police shootings.

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