AuthorHarmon, Elizabeth

    Every American has a constitutional right against the use of excessive force by law enforcement; (1) however, too often unarmed Black men not only have this right violated, but subsequently have courts tell them that the violation was legally acceptable. (2) In the last decade, the disturbing number of unarmed Black men who are being killed by police every year has started to gain national attention. (3) While these murders are often categorized as "reasonable," (4) the truth is that they are almost always avoidable. (5) Police academies have trained police officers to believe that they are in constant danger of losing their lives, and that any hesitation in shooting a suspect could lead to their deaths. (6) But the truth is that police officers are rarely in life-threatening danger; (7) however, racial bias (whether conscious or unconscious) influences them to see non-existent weapons on unarmed Black men, (8) and their training urges them to shoot those men. (9) This Note asks the following questions: (1) whether police need to shoot unarmed civilians; (2) why so many unarmed civilians shot by the police are Black men; and (3) why these shootings of unarmed Black men are so often accepted and condoned by the courts, in that the majority of them result in no charges to the shooting officer. In analyzing the answers to these questions, this Note ultimately aspires to shine light on the fact that there is almost never a need for police to fire on unarmed civilians. (10)


    1. Is Killing Civilians a Necessary Part of Policing?

      Law and order in the United States is upheld by approximately 700,000 law enforcement officers. (11) As a group, they collectively kill between two and three civilians per day, and over a thousand civilians per year, every year. (12) The alarming regularity with which American law enforcement officers kill civilians is generally explained away and excused by the belief that policing is a profession that requires officers to take the lives of dangerous and threatening individuals in order to protect the lives of not only themselves, but all law-abiding citizens. (13) However, the United States seems to be the only country that holds this belief, and the only country in the entire Western world that requires daily police killings in order to protect the public. (14) In England, where all police officers and most civilians are unarmed, police killings are almost unheard of. (15) According to Professor Paul Hirschfield, "U.S. police killed more people in the first [twenty-four] days of 2015 than British and Welsh police have killed in the last 24 years." (16) Even in countries where all police and many civilians do carry guns, U.S. police officers still outkill all of them. (17) U.S. police kill civilians at twelve times the rate of the armed police force in Australia (who only killed six people in 2011), and four times the rate of the similarly armed Canadian police. (18)

      Americans downplay the inflated rate at which their law enforcement officers kill civilians compared to the law enforcement officers in other industrialized countries with similar cultures by pointing to the prevalence of guns in American society. (19) The United States is a nation in which the right to own firearms is protected as a constitutional right and where gun access is relatively easier to obtain than in most industrialized countries. (20) The logic is not hard to follow: because more civilians in America have guns, American police are more likely to encounter armed suspects, and therefore more likely to have a need to use lethal force against those suspects in order to keep themselves and any nearby innocent civilians safe. (21) However, the numbers do not support this argument. (22) While police departments like to boast that roughly 93% of civilians killed by police each year are armed, it is important to note what weapons the civilians are armed with. (23) In 2020, 27% of those civilians who were armed had no guns, but instead were carrying either a knife, sharp object, "other object," or were considered armed because they were in a vehicle at the time that they were killed. (24) This means that while all police officers are armed with guns, only about 58% of all civilians killed by police in 2021 were. (25) Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that in addition to being unarmed, 12.3% of civilians slain by law enforcement between 2009 and 2012 posed no immediate threat to either an officer or any other civilians. (26) This raises the question that if police are allowed to shoot civilians who are not endangering anyone, is there anyone the police are not allowed to shoot?

      It is undisputed and important to acknowledge that police officers have difficult jobs and do face dangerous situations in their careers, some of which require the use of lethal force. The issue is not the use of lethal force when required--it is the use of lethal force when not required. One thousand seventy civilians were killed by police officers in 2013. (27) In contrast, twenty-seven police officers were killed by civilians that same year. (28) It would seem, then, that in an encounter between a civilian and a police officer, the civilian is in more danger than the officer. In fact, a 2013 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that being a police officer is not even one of the "top ten most dangerous occupations" in America. (29) Truck drivers, logging workers, aircraft pilots, flight engineers, miners, farmers, ranchers, construction laborers, and even garbage and recyclable material collectors are all more likely to be killed on the job than a police officer. (30)

      Killing civilians is not a necessary part of policing in America. No other countries in the Western world have as many police killings as America does, and their law enforcement agencies are still able to police their respective nations. (31) Policing is not even close to being the most dangerous occupation in America, and relatively few officers are killed by civilians each year. (32) In police-civilian interactions, police are less likely to be harmed by civilians than civilians are by police. (33) Police officers do not have to kill civilians daily in order to do their jobs, so the question becomes, why does this happen? The answer may lie in police training programs.

    2. Training to Kill: Police Training Academies and the Emphasis on Violence

      There is an overemphasis on violence in police training academies that creates a myth that police officers are constantly in danger of losing their lives if they don't employ the violent tactics they are taught. (34) By creating a culture in both police academies and law enforcement communities that prioritizes and promotes violence and self-protection, (35) this training encourages officers to overreact to nonviolent scenarios by using deadly force. (36) A 2015 report made by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found that an alarming number of police chiefs reported "that there is an informal tradition of supervisors telling their officers that 'Your most important job is to get home safely to your family at the end of your shift.'" (37) Several police chiefs informed PERF researchers that even they, as law enforcement officers themselves, believed that this daily practice of telling police officers that their lives are in constant danger from civilians on the street, and that their "most important job" is to protect themselves, should be rethought. (38) This is because some of the most controversial cases of unnecessary law enforcement shootings "seem to reflect training that has officers think solely about their own safety, rather than a broader approach designed to protect everyone's lives." (39) This self-centered training approach seems a strange and contradictory way to prepare police officers for a career in protecting others.

      A 2013 recruitment video for the Denison, Texas Police Department gives civilians a glimpse of the type of over-hyped violence that the police department primes its officers to expect every day. (40) After a nearly three-minute montage of police officers enforcing the law with riot shields, guns, tasers, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and a squad of five police SUVs racing down the highway, lights flashing and in a perfect formation, the video proudly tells its viewers: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." (41) This video and quote not only tell police officers that they need to do violence in order to keep the community safe, but Rodney Monroe, a police chief in North Carolina, argued that it also attracts recruits that are drawn to the law enforcement profession because they want to perform the type of violence portrayed in the recruitment videos. (42) At a PERF conference, he explained that "we must weed out candidates who think policing is all about weapons," the exact kind of candidates the Denison recruitment video is designed to attract. (43) Another critic of the video, Police Chief Joseph Price, from Virginia, added that it is time to stop training officers to see themselves as "warrior[s]," and instead train them to see themselves as "guardian[s]." (44) However, California-based Police Chief Robert Lehner warned that it will be difficult to get police officers to stop seeing themselves as "warriors," because "we have drilled that concept of warrior into them from the beginning, and as 'guardian,' not so much." (45) It is evident that some violent individuals are attracted to the law enforcement profession, (46) and the fear is that the academies are further promoting those violent tendencies in cadets throughout their training. (47)

      Indeed, Dr. Caitlin Lynch, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, who graduated from a police academy in California before earning her degree, found disconcerting training tactics in her 2018 review of police...

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