Thursday, March 02, 2006
How much force by the police is justified?
In the United States news stories of the police killing a suspect alleged to have been holding a gun or a knife or even a suspicious shadow come a dime a dozen. And these killings by the police are largely indiscriminate, though summary executions of women are rare. The victim can be old or young, black or white, sane or insane. The only requirement is that he not be rich, a politician, or a rich politician.
You see, in the United States no one's life is considered as valuable as that of the police officer, with the exception of course of the politician, who is the most sacred of all. Many states have special penalties for those who would harm a police officer—or "other official," which you have to admit is rather odd in a democracy. On the other hand, if a citizen survives a violent confrontation with the police, there is almost no chance a police officer will be prosecuted, much less convicted for inappropriate use of force, unless of course there is video evidence—and even then it's very iffy.
Don't get me wrong. The police are entitled to every reasonable protection of life and limb—the best training, bullet-proof vests and any other consideration that can make them safer in their jobs—which is what I would expect for all workers. But the nominal job of the police is law enforcement, not murder.
People who enter the police force do so voluntarily. By its nature the job entails an elevated risk of injury and even of losing one's life. But so do many blue-collar jobs. And police work is far from the most dangerous profession. In fact it doesn't even fall within the top 10 most dangerous jobs.
What level of force is justified?
I use the Bouncer Test. Bars all over this great country are rife with volatile, violent and sometimes insane people not infrequently armed with guns and knives. They're known as "the customers" or "the clientele." And in all the states that I've toured the bar owners must possess a license to sell alcohol to these people. The license usually comes with a stipulation that the bar must not present a public nuisance, which is to say that it will keep all those drunk, volatile and violent people out of the public eye. For this reason bar owners absolutely hate to call the police; it's a black mark—for which they might end up having to pay somebody off. So bars have their own enforcers—the bouncers.
Now you and I know that bouncers are not free to maim or execute customers willy-nilly, and in many states they are not even free to draw a weapon. First of all, unlike the police, they may be indicted, tried and convicted if they harm anyone. Second, the bar owner might be sued. And third, a lot of bars can't afford to lose the customers.
For instance, at the Pink Snapper one of my fellow convivialists once followed me into the parking lot and flashed a knife because I didn't love the Lord Jesus Christ quite as much as he did. Fortunately I was near the door of my car and had my cellphone handy. I made a dash, called the bouncer and the problem was over in a jiffy. I believe they barred him for a week, and I haven't had the problem since.
If I had called the police, the outcome might have been very different. Since the man who followed me had a visible weapon, the police might have shot him. On the other hand, if they learned why I was being menaced they might have shot me instead. (Fundamentalist Muslims could learn from some of our Christian brethren in these parts.)
By now you're probably tired of this screed and wondering what could have set me off. Was there no post yesterday because I was being held incommunicado in a jail cell? Not yet.
No, it's those Swedes again. Yesterday this appeared in The Local—
A drunk young man who threatened to kill himself and his mother in their apartment in Borlänge was shot in the leg by police early on Wednesday morning.
The 18 year old man came out of the flat and pointed a handgun at police, who shot him. The injured man went back into the apartment with a wound in his lower left leg, said police.
Before the shooting, which occurred at about 3am, he had released his mother from their home.
A special police unit from Stockholm arrived in Borlänge at 8am and began negotiations with the man an hour later.
After 45 minutes of negotiations the special unit broke into the apartment and arrested the man.
According to police spokesman Sven-Åke Petters the man handed himself over to police calmly and was then taken to hospital for treatment of the gunshot wound.
He is now suspected of making illegal threats, serious weapons offences and threatening a police officer.
The man himself rang the police during the night and made the threats against his mother. She said that he had drunk a large quantity of homemade spirits.
The 18 year old is said to be known by police.
Though I've written about the abusive use of Tasers, this is a situation in which a Taser really would have been better than a non-lethal bullet, since the boy would have been totally disabled and the police would have been safer. But do you think this kid would have survived in the U.S.?
Ah, to live free in Denver! (1/28/05)
Tasmania touched by angels in UFOs (4/1/05)
What this country has become: He-men in action (7/18/05)
The Taser: A shocking toy for the police (7/20/05)
A law professor comments on the murder by London police (7/26/05)
Why did the London police shoot a bomber suspect? (7/27/05)
Murder now legal in Britain for officers of the Crown (11/27/05)