Recent police shootings nationwide, and accompanying civil unrest, have focused attention on use of force. Though demonstrations here have been comparatively peaceful, Utah is not immune, as incidents in Salt Lake City, Saratoga Springs, and Stansbury Park illustrate.
I know at least one officer who had to shoot at someone, and I can tell you that human beings are neither psychologically nor sociologically well-engineered to shoot at their fellow human beings. If they were, we would call them psychopaths or sociopaths.
The high incidence of post-traumatic stress and other psychological maladies – not to mention rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and family dysfunction – among officers militates against the proposition that they are simply “trigger happy.”
I’ve known other officers (who constitute the overwhelming majority) who’ve served their entire careers without firing a shot except to qualify and during range practice (though threatening to use a weapon is another matter). An officer’s most important tools — his brain, his eyes, his ears, and his voice — are not weapons.
Strictly speaking, officers don’t shoot to kill, and they don’t shoot to wound. Overwhelmingly, they shoot to neutralize an imminent threat of death or of serious bodily injury to officers or to someone else. They simply want to be able to go home at the end of their shift, and to keep others safe.
A robust dialogue should occur about how police officers do their jobs. Anyone with a reasonable proposal for possibly improving law enforcement policies, how use of force is investigated, and how its misuse is dealt with, should be welcome at the table.
While the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment endorses peaceful protest, civil unrest and inciting violence are other matters entirely. It doesn’t take much for a peaceful protest to be co-opted by those who cause it to devolve into a senseless orgy of arson, looting, vandalism, and other violence.
The man in New York City who led the chant, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want [them]? Now!” is a perfect example of how not to go about achieving any needed reform. Such acts simply increase the “us-versus-them” siege mentality among officers and distrust between officers and the public.
The man who led that chant got his wish when Ismaaiyl Brinsley executed NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos before killing himself. The aftermath of Brinsley’s crimes illustrates that officials must walk a fine line and exercise great care in their public statements regarding officers’ actions.
If officials fail to exercise care in speaking to the public, some listeners may conclude that violence against police is justified, while officers’ “us-versus-them” and siege mentality attitudes may be reinforced, as officers conclude that the municipalities and agencies which employ them do not support them.
Here’s hoping that what we do and what we say contributes to a productive public dialogue about these issues. Officers and administrators should listen carefully, and the public, in turn, should listen to them as they explain more fully the challenges officers face and why they do what they do.
Gourdin received a B.S. with honors in Criminal Justice from Weber State University and is a certified paralegal. He lives in Tooele.