Other Opinions

Courtland Milloy: Walk in an officer’s shoes

A police officer, carrying pepper spray and a gun, sees a young man trying to break into a school. The suspect begins to flee but then turns and runs toward the officer while wielding a large screwdriver.

Shoot or don’t shoot? Hint: Don’t waste time with the spray.

The scenario was part of a computer-simulated “use of force” training exercise run by the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, a police advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Virginia. I was invited to take a virtual walk in a police officer’s shoes last week, having recently written columns about police conduct that the LELDF thought one-sided and unfair.

“We’re hoping to show individuals who might not have a background in law enforcement that when they see something on TV or have a bad experience with a police officer that there is usually more to it, especially when it comes to the use of force,” said Bryan Patterson, a retired Fairfax County (Virginia) police officer and a use-of-force instructor for the LELDF. “We want the community to know that we are all working for the same thing — a safe, civil society.”

Patterson began the simulated shooting exercise with a summary of relevant U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

His primer on police powers amounted to essential information that ought to be taught in every high school. Some police officers could also benefit from a refresher course.

Perhaps most significant is the 1989 Graham v. Connor decision, which provided the legal basis for the findings that the use of force was justified in the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York.

The court’s opinion reads, in part, that “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” And, “the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

That’s a lot of leeway given to police.

Patterson also explained Terry v. Ohio, the 1968 ruling authorizing the controversial “stop and frisk” procedures.

“If there is a reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity is afoot, has already happened or is about to happen, then we can detain you for 20 to 30 minutes,” Patterson said. “We can make you stay put, ask you questions without reading your Miranda rights, and move you from one place to another for safety reasons, handcuff you and pat you down.”

He also gave an overview of Tennessee v. Garner, decided in 1985, which held that police in pursuit of a fleeing suspect may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

I asked Ronald T. Hosko, a former FBI investigator and president of LELDF, what he thought about the police shooting in North Charleston, South Carolina, last week.

After being stopped for a broken taillight, the driver got out of the car and tried to run away. The officer began to chase the man on foot but stopped, drew his gun and shot the man in the back several times.

The shooting was caught on a cellphone camera, and the traffic stop was recorded by the cruiser’s dashboard cam.

“We are missing a piece of the story and don’t know what happened in that gap between the cellphone video and the car cam,” Hosko said. “But it’s going to be a struggle to explain it.”

I was reluctant to kill the young man in the simulated attack. So I used the pepper spray and kept the gun ready in case that didn’t work. Apparently I misjudged how quickly the young man could close a 20-foot gap between us – in approximately 1.5 seconds. The pepper spray probably would not have stopped him, Patterson said, and there was no time left to fire the gun.

“Now you have a screwdriver planted in your neck,” he said.

Point taken, but did the situation really have to come down to him or me? Wasn’t there some nonlethal way to end it?

“As long as there are criminals, there will be a need for police to use force, sometimes deadly force,” Patterson said. “It’s never pretty. The question is whether it’s reasonable.”