To shoot or not to shoot, police reformers ask

The decision to use deadly force shouldn’t depend on municipal boundaries. Police agencies here can and should lead the way by coming together around a common set of standards and practices that protect both police officers and the citizens they serve.

On Aug. 19, 2014, 10 days after Michael Brown was shot to death by a Ferguson police officer, two St. Louis police officers shot and killed Kajieme Powell, 25, outside of a Riverview Boulevard convenience store.

Powell was armed with a steak knife. Cellphone video of the incident shows him beginning to step down an embankment toward the officers. He was well within 21 feet of the officers when he was shot. The two officers were not charged in the shooting.

Twenty-one feet is a key measurement for police officers faced with someone carrying an edged weapon. An informal study in 1983 showed that it takes an average man 1.5 seconds to close that distance. It takes an average cop just slightly less than that to draw his weapon and fire. There are so many complicating factors that St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson calls the 21-foot rule an “urban myth.”

Now the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank, proposes throwing out the 21-foot rule. It is one of the “30 Guiding Principles” that the forum has suggested as one revision to police use-of-force guidelines. It draws upon expertise from Scotland, where only 2 percent of officers carry guns. Most suspects don’t either. The typical confrontation there involves a knife. And the policy in Scotland is to mitigate the threat, slow down, move back and talk. That is, de-escalate.

De-escalation is the key to many proposals unveiled Jan. 29 at a meeting in Rosslyn, Va., attended by Dotson and 200 other police commanders. Dotson said St. Louis police already employ many of these principles, including de-escalation techniques. We don’t hear about it because someone not being shot just doesn’t make the news. But further de-escalation tactics may be adopted.

The “gun-centric” environment in the United States poses different challenges from Scotland’s, Dotson said. Not only do criminals here have guns, some police officers fire when they can, not when they should.

“There’s a lot of old-school mentality out there,” Dotson said. Attitudes prevail such as, “ ‘Take names and kick ass.’ ‘It’s us versus them.’ ‘Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.’ “

Police forces around the country are engaging in this reform conversation, Dotson said. “Major city chiefs are saying this is the way to go.” But other chiefs are hesitant.

Differing standards and attitudes are of vital importance in the St. Louis region, with its multitude of police agencies. But there should be one bottom-line rule followed by all: Use of lethal force must be the option of last resort.

Reprinted from the St. Louis Post Dispatch

Distributed by Creators.com

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