Police killings in US prompt evaluation of laws allowing deadly force

ATLANTA (NYTIMES) – The swift decision on Sunday (June 14) to fire the white Atlanta police officer who shot and killed a black motorist intensified the growing reexamination of the use of deadly force by the police, challenging long-standing principles that have given law enforcement officers wide latitude in cases in which an encounter ends with a death.

Although laws vary by state, police officers in America are generally allowed to use deadly force when they reasonably believe their lives or the lives of others are in danger, a legal standard designed to give the authorities enormous leeway to make split-second life-or-death decisions without hesitation or fear of prosecution.

Protesters are met by police during a march in Atlanta on June 14, 2020.
Protesters are met by police during a march in Atlanta on June 14, 2020.PHOTO: NYTIMES

But in the wake of years of growing anger over the deaths of African Americans by the police, and particularly the nationwide upheaval following the killing of Mr George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, those guiding principles are now falling away with astonishing rapidity, police and legal experts say.

“In the last two weeks, I have seen more legislators – federal and state legislators – talking about amending use of force laws, and I’ve seen more laws proposed than I’ve ever seen before,” said Professor Seth Stoughton, a law expert at the University of South Carolina who studies policing and use-of-force policies. “There is a much broader bipartisan recognition that the status quo is untenable and something needs to change.”

Within 24 hours of the shooting death in Atlanta of Mr Rayshard Brooks, which took place near a Wendy’s drive-through, the city’s police chief resigned and the officer who fired the fatal shot was terminated.

According to video captured by surveillance cameras and bystanders in the drive-through, Mr Brooks struggled with two police officers before taking one of the officer’s tasers. An officer than shot him as he fled.

On Sunday, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Mr Brooks’ death was a homicide and said he had been shot twice in the back, causing “organ injuries and blood loss.” Also on Sunday, police released additional video showing that Mr Brooks and the two officers spoke calmly for more than 25 minutes before the altercation.

As those details emerged, lawmakers and leaders drew parallels – and contrasts – with the other recent police-involved killings of black people that have ignited protests across the nation.

“We need reformation of how police officers do their jobs, how law enforcement does its job because what happened yesterday to Rayshard Brooks was a function of excessive force,” Ms Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic candidate for Georgia governor in 2018, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

The shooting death of Mr Brooks happened while the relationships among Atlanta politicians, rank-and-file officers and activists were already especially tense.

It took place less than three weeks after Mr Floyd’s killing unleashed a torrent of protests across the nation against police brutality. Those protests included Atlanta, where demonstrations escalated into a violent confrontation in which crowds smashed through downtown businesses and set police vehicles on fire.

In one fraught episode caught on video involving two African-American college students, police officers pulled a woman from a car and tased a man as he sat in the driver’s seat, leading to the termination of those officers, who also were charged with using excessive force.

On Saturday night, the city’s mayor, Ms Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is African American, said she did not believe that the shooting death of Mr Brooks was “a justified use of deadly force,” and said the officer, Mr Garrett Rolfe, should be terminated immediately.

The swift response, which also included the resignation of the city’s police chief, Ms Erika Shields, who is white, reflected the intensified scrutiny now being applied to officers after using fatal force.

“I think people are fed up,” said Prof Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology expert at the University of South Carolina, adding that the shift has been fueled in large part by the prevalence of video evidence that often provides a clear account of officers’ using force beyond their word alone.

“We’re starting to see a lot more evidence that is either going to allow the officers the justification to do what they did or condemn and sometimes convict them.”

Advocates for the police argue that officers are now being left to navigate a difficult landscape, believing they do not have the support of elected officials when responding to dangerous situations.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re right or wrong,” said Mr Vincent Champion, the south-east regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

In Washington, DC, the City Council passed a new use of force provision last week in emergency legislation that will be valid for 90 days, but could eventually become permanent. It stipulates that a jury, in a criminal case against a police officer, must not only focus on whether the officer had a “belief” that the use of force was reasonable – a common standard in state law – but also find that an officer’s actions were reasonable.

This focus on “reasonable actions” is a seemingly small but potentially important shift in the goal posts in criminal use-of-force cases that was inspired by Cynthia Lee, a George Washington University law professor, who laid out the idea in a 2018 law review article.

The Washington law also requires juries to consider whether an officer engaged in deescalation measures, and whether the officer’s preceding conduct increased the risk of a deadly confrontation.

“Even though law reform may not provide all the answers, it can help shift the culture,” Prof Lee said in an interview Sunday. “We want officers to be more careful when they’re in these tense situations and we want them to see people as human beings instead of enemies.”

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