Op-Ed Contributors

Making Policing Safer for Everyone

Chuck Wexler and

Credit...Yann Le Bec

POLICE sergeants routinely tell their officers that their most important job is to make it home safely. And it is no wonder why they dispense this advice. With an estimated 350 million firearms in the United States, officers daily face the threat of gun violence, making this country far more dangerous for the police than countries with tight controls on guns.

Last Saturday’s shooting of Ashley Guindon, a police officer in Prince William County in Virginia, is a reminder of how dangerous policing can be. She was shot dead while responding to a domestic violence call on her first day on patrol.

Unfortunately, this sense of ever-present danger has shaped police training, tactics and culture in ways that can lead to responses that are neither proportional nor necessary in situations that don’t involve guns. We need to rethink our tactics in such circumstances.

Perhaps the best example is the so-called 21-foot rule. In many police departments, officers are trained to be prepared to shoot if they are within 21 feet of someone with a knife. This can lead to what’s known among the police as a “lawful but awful” response.

This is because the legal standard used in police shootings allows prosecutors and grand juries to conclude that although an officer’s shooting of a suspect may be questionable, it isn’t criminal.

The standard came from a 1989 Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor. The justices ruled that an officer’s use of force must be “objectively reasonable.” But the court went on to caution that “police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

This standard can lead to results like this: A mentally ill person is on the street throwing rocks and is shot to death minutes or even seconds after the police arrive. The shooting is found to be legally justified (lawful), but to many who witness it or see it later on video, it does not appear to be proportional or necessary (awful). In other words, just because the police can legally use deadly force doesn’t always mean they should.

Thirty percent of 990 fatal police shootings in 2015 did not involve someone with a gun, according to an examination by The Washington Post. In 9 percent of the shootings, the subject was unarmed, and in 16 percent, armed with a knife. The remaining 5 percent involved people who used a vehicle as a weapon.

Some 200 police chiefs and law enforcement officials from across the country met recently to finalize a year’s worth of work to take our profession to a standard higher than what Graham v. Connor requires. The goal is to prevent lawful-but-awful outcomes while increasing officer safety.

We looked at how officers are trained for situations in which a person is armed with an edged weapon like a knife. Although these confrontations can be extremely dangerous, the police should not automatically handle these people as they would a gunman. Often there are ways to defuse these confrontations without resorting to deadly force.

Our recommendations are based in part on what we learned last November, when officials from 23 American police agencies traveled to Scotland to see how the police there resolve such situations. Most police officers in Scotland don’t carry firearms, so they have become expert in combining crisis intervention skills (such as learning how to communicate more effectively with a mentally ill person) with tactics and equipment like sprays and shields for disarming people with knives.

The key for the police in such circumstances is to slow things down: to ask questions rather than bark orders, to speak in a normal tone, to summon additional resources if necessary. Pulling out a gun on an anxious person may unintentionally raise his level of stress. In “suicide by cop” confrontations, this can make a bad situation worse.

We found that this approach works — not only in Britain, where police officials say it has increased the safety of officers and the public, but also in places like New York City and in Camden, N.J.

In November, Camden County police officers responded to a man on the street with a knife. Rather than rushing toward him and putting themselves in a position where they had to use deadly force, the officers followed the suspect down the street, kept at a distance and arrested him when he dropped the knife. No shots were fired and no one was injured.

“Slowing it down” is not always possible. Police officers are sometimes attacked suddenly, as in the October 2014 assault on a group of New York police officers by a man with a hatchet. This attack lasted less than 10 seconds. The assailant was shot and killed. But in many encounters, officers can keep a safe distance and evaluate the situation.

Toward that end, the country’s 18,000 police departments need to rethink their strategies for responding to situations that do not involve guns. In short, the use of force must be proportional to the threat. Officers should focus on calming volatile situations. They must intervene if they see colleagues using excessive force. First aid must be rendered promptly. Shooting at vehicles should be prohibited.

If officers are properly trained and equipped, they and the people they encounter can walk away unharmed from many situations that now end in police shootings. In the end, police policies and training must be centered on the sanctity of all human life.