Each time police officers draw their weapons, they step out of everyday law enforcement and into a rigidly defined world where written rules, hours of training and Supreme Court decisions dictate not merely when a gun can be fired, but where it is aimed, how many rounds should be squeezed off and when the shooting should stop.
The Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who fatally shot an unarmed African-American teenager two weeks ago, sparking protest and riots, was bound by 12 pages of police-department regulations, known as General Order 410.00, that govern officers’ use of force. Whether he obeyed them will play a central role in deliberations by a St. Louis County grand jury over whether the officer, Darren Wilson, should be charged with a crime in the shooting.
But as sweeping as restrictions on the use of weapons may be, deciding whether an officer acted correctly in firing at a suspect is not cut-and-dried. A host of outside factors, from the officer’s perception of a threat to the suspect’s behavior and even his size, can emerge as mitigating or damning.
The police, the courts and experts say some leeway is necessary in situations where officers under crushing stress must make split-second decisions with life-or-death consequences. A large majority of officers never use their weapons. A handful of officers may be rogue killers, researchers say, but laboratory simulations of armed confrontations show that many more officers — much like ordinary civilians — can make honest mistakes in the pressure cooker of an armed encounter.
“It’s a difficult job for coppers out there,’’ Timothy Maher, a former officer and a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said in an interview. “In the heat of the moment, things are happening so quickly. If they were role-playing, they could say, ‘Time out.’ But in real life, it’s, ‘Wow — in my training, this guy stopped, but here, he didn’t.’’’
Some citizens who read witnesses’ accounts of police shootings or view cellphone videos of them see the shootings as brutal and unjustified, which underscores a frequent gap between public perceptions and official views.
The rules dictate when an officer may move from mild coercion, such as issuing an order or grabbing a suspect’s arm, to stronger or even deadly action. In general, officers are allowed to respond with greater force after a suspect does so, and the type of response — from a gentle push to a tight grip, a baton strike to a stun gun shock to a bullet — rises as the threat grows.
Every step, however, is overshadowed by a single imperative: If an officer believes he or someone else is in imminent danger of grievous injury or death, he is allowed to shoot first, and ask questions later. The same is true, the courts have ruled, in cases where a suspect believed to have killed or gravely injured someone is fleeing and can only be halted with deadly force.
“It’s a very simple analysis, a threat analysis,’’ said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor and expert on high-risk police activities. “If a police officer has an objectively reasonable fear of an imminent threat to his life or serious bodily harm, he or she is justified in using deadly force. And not just his life, but any life.’’
“Objectively reasonable’’ is a standard set by the Supreme Court in 1989 when it said that a police officer’s use of excessive force must be seen in the context of what reasonable officers would do in the same situation, given the danger and stress of police work.
Much remains in dispute about Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old whom he stopped as Brown was walking home about noon on Aug. 9. But the question of whether Wilson’s actions were objectively reasonable will likely be at the crux of that debate.
Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the department of science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said if the evidence shows a close-up shooting and a struggle, it will go better for Wilson.
Ferguson police officials have said Brown and a friend were walking in the street when Wilson stopped them. In an ensuing struggle, they said, Wilson was hit in the face and Brown attempted to take his gun, which discharged. Later, Wilson shot Brown six times as the two men faced each other.
Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, has said that Wilson grabbed Brown by the throat and said “I’m gonna shoot you’’ as he tried to drag him into the squad car. He and Brown fled after the gun discharged, Johnson said, and Wilson, in pursuit, shot Brown as he stood with his hands up in surrender.
David Klinger, also a former police officer and a professor and criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has interviewed in depth some 300 officers who fired weapons in confrontations with suspects. A blow to the head by itself would not justify a shooting, he said, but other factors also could be at work.
“Sometimes you make a straight-up mistake,’’ Klinger said. “‘He punched me, so I shot him.’ Punching and shooting don’t go together unless you’re much bigger than me or you have martial arts training.’’
“Let the physical evidence tell us what happened,’’ said Pat Diaz, a former South Florida homicide detective who investigated more than 100 police shootings and now works as a court-certified expert witness. “How badly injured was the police officer? Was he dazed? Was Michael Brown on drugs? Let’s see what’s really going on here.’’
“He may have been pulling the trigger out of pure adrenaline, because he was in fear,’’ Diaz said. “If the cop has no injuries, then it’s clear-cut and hard to say he should have been shot. It’s all going to be told by the physical evidence.’’
Similarly, said Kobilinsky of John Jay, “If a felon is fleeing and is known to be unarmed and poses no danger of bodily harm to either a police officer or civilians in the area, then the officer will no doubt have legal issues if he uses deadly force to subdue that person.’’
At Washington State University in Spokane, researchers have run hundreds of simulated confrontations with suspects, using 60 filmed scenarios based on real life and performed by trained actors. Police officers participating in the simulations are wired to monitor body and brain functions.
The results show that as the simulations become more complex — adding bystanders, dimming lights, turning up background noise — officers are more likely to make mistakes in judgment, said Bryan Vila, a professor of criminal justice and former police officer who oversees the research.
“People have to make a decision before there’s enough time to study everything about the situation and what all the possible consequences could be,’’ he said. “Even if a cop does everything right in a very fast-paced, low-information situation where the risks are very high, the potential consequences of a mistake are very high.’’