Reforming the US Police Force: Should the Police Be Allowed To Shoot?
Recent fatalities of individuals who suffer from mental disabilities due to encounters with the Los Angeles police officers have called into question whether law enforcement is properly equipped to respond to disturbance calls wherein the alleged perpetrator suffers from a mental illness.
According to civil rights attorney Rodney Diggs with Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, “The LAPD faces a need for systemic change”. In May 2017, the LA police commission unanimously approved 25 new recommendations, after discovering alarming findings in the LAPD’s first ever, Use of Force Report.
Diggs, who has handled multiple wrongful death lawsuits stemming from officer-involved shootings and individuals with mental disabilities, believes these recommendations are a step in the right direction.
Media reports often spur mixed opinions to how the police force in the US tackle [emergency] cases; the use of armed weaponry and the ability to “shoot to stop” has caused controversy, as self-defence being used as an excuse to purposely “aim to harm” due to alternative predisposed aims are in play during discussions.
Nonetheless, when handling such cases, the police department need to ensure they are approaching each situation with caution to avoid unnecessary harm and conflict, whilst ensuring they are following through their vow to protect their citizens.
Where race, religion and other determining factors are usually the base for this debate, Rodney Diggs has noted another concerning increase in cases:
“Over the years I have practiced, I have seen [approximately] 50-60% increase in wrongful death cases related to individuals suffering from mental disabilities/illness.”
Such a vast increase of wrongful deaths is cause for huge concern, so, what accounts towards this increase? Diggs explains: “The changes are due to the officer’s lack of being trained and dealing with individuals who suffer from mental illnesses. Conventional police training directly clashes with effective tactics for resolving a typical mental health crisis.
“Unfortunately, much of that training relies on a command-and-control approach that can lead to dangerous escalations in the use of force.”
It is not unknown that mental illness and its depiction in society is still a challenge society needs to embrace. Not everyone will know how the ins-and-outs of every illness in the book, however, a lack of ignorance towards the subject would certainly not hurt, especially those involved in public services.
Which brought Lawyer Monthly to ask: “Why do you think the LAPD lacks guidance when it comes to addressing those with mental illnesses?”
Rodney replies: “It’s more of a lack of training. Proper training takes time and money and the reason to why departments may not choose to use resources needed to train officers, is because the value may be hard to quantify.
“Once departments realise that it may cost money upfront for training but ultimately will save money and lives, they will see the return on investment.”
Training ought to enhance the public’s trust and to lessen the cases we are seeing involving mishandling alleged perpetrators. Rodney says: “Training will teach officers that they do not have to approach a situation and take action right away. But in a medical emergency, slowing it down, getting additional resources and perhaps even stepping back should be the norm.
“When the public sees that someone’s life is saved because an officer properly assessed a situation and now that family doesn’t have to lose a loved one, then the public will trust that the police are equipped to handle these situations.”
And of course, the media comes into play here: “Additionally, the media plays a big role in the perception of its viewers. The media can either assist in enhancing the public’s trust or incite fear. So, if we want to bridge the gap between officers and civilians, the media needs to highlight instances in which officers do the right thing in a very sticky situation.”
Aforementioned, we know that the use of weaponry during emergency cases is now often questions. And so we asked Rodney to expand to when he thinks it is acceptable that use of force is enforced; he again stated the importance behind properly assessing the situation at hand.
“Use of force is never acceptable unless the force used is objectively reasonable and used only when necessary to accomplish lawful objectives.
“Officers have to assess the situation and determine which use of force should be used in their specific situation.”
Rodney outlines the factors officers should use when deciding whether to use force and what type of force option to use:
(1) Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or others;
(2) The severity of the crime;
(3) Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest; and
(4) Whether the suspect is a flight risk or attempting to escape custody.
Further deadly force should only be used if there is an immediate threat of death or severe bodily injury to the officer or another.
However, implementing an effective process will not be easy.
“I think it takes a lot of work for an effective process upfront. However, training should be ongoing and continuous. The work and training should never stop. It all begins with the department understanding that implementing a training for its officers, in the long run, helps saves lives and saves the city money by paying out less for wrongful death lawsuits.”
A method of improving often involves implementing better and stronger sanctions; so, we wonder whether those involved in wrongful deaths need to be better sanctioned.
“A lot of times we see that criminally, officers are not charged with murder or even disciplined within their own departments. On one hand, families of victims wrongfully killed bring civil actions and at times cities, not the departments themselves, pay out millions to these families.
“Despite the monetary compensation that may be awarded to families, the officers face no discipline and the money that is being paid is not being paid out of the officer’s pockets. Monetary compensation by way of settlement, or event civil verdicts, does not equate police reform.
“Greater sanctions would cause a deterrent and would cause officers to think twice and consider the reasonable and appropriate force options available to them or opt not to use force, especially deadly force, when it’s not needed.”
The report itself discusses the following options:
- Increased de-escalation training, and adopting de-escalation as a formal agency policy.
- Discouraging force against those who pose a danger only to themselves.
- Other options, such as chemical spray and personal protection shields.
- Providing prompt supervisory response to critical incidents to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary force.
You can read the full proposed report here.
Rodney S. Diggs is a practiced litigator with substantial experience mediating disputes and trying cases to verdict in both federal and state courts. Rodney is Chair of the Labor & Employment practice group, which focuses on harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and wage and hour issues. He represents employers ranging from public entities to Fortune 500 companies, as well as individual employees. He also handles civil rights litigation.
Rodney’s significant achievements include settling a wrongful death lawsuit for $5.5 million and serving as lead counsel in Reginald Mitchell v. California Department of Public Health, which resulted in a published California Court of Appeal decision.