I recall returning to my office, where an officer awaited to talk to me. He had just killed an assailant. As I opened the door, I saw him wiping tears from his eyes. He was distraught. I knew the man he had just killed had shot at him first. I told him I was aware of the circumstances. I told him I knew he had no other choice but to defend himself. I commended him for what he had done and reassured him of the propriety of his actions. He responded, "Yes, I know but I just killed a man."
Most police officers possess a background and a mindset that places a high value on human life, which is appropriate and should be encouraged through policy and value statements. My 38 years of police experience have convinced me that every officer who takes a life copes with some level of guilt and regret. This remains true even when officers had virtually no choice and were completely justified in their actions. Taking a human life is a traumatic event. Officers who are forced into this experience will usually have to work through an adjustment period.
The media and political pundits often add to the officer's mental anguish. We have experienced recent examples both here and in the United Kingdom where officers found it necessary to use deadly force to prevent what clearly appeared to be imminent acts of terrorism. In both cases, once the points of decision and crisis were passed, the officers discovered no weapons of mass destruction were present. The adage "hindsight is always 20-20" comes into play here. Sadly, the media and other Monday-morning quarterbacks asked questions that, no doubt, added to the officers' sorrow.
For these and other reasons, I believe it's better not to use deadly force if some other option exists. That's why we should all be grateful for the development of less-lethal technology, which gives us several alternatives to deadly force. When available and appropriate, officers should use these alternatives.
Less-lethal technology or methods can work when officers anticipate violent resistance or a hazardous situation, or during a protracted incident. In such cases, officers can plan, prepare and deploy the appropriate devices. When afforded this luxury, of course officers should exercise the less-lethal option. But this is not always the case. The decision to use deadly force may be totally unexpected and unavoidable.
Many criminals are ready and willing to pull the trigger and kill. They have no conscience or value system to spur hesitation. Confrontation with a police officer sets in motion an almost preprogrammed action. On the other hand, officers' value systems can cause hesitation on their part. Officers must also pass the decision through a grid:
- Is the action legal?;
- Is the action within policy?; and
- Is the action absolutely necessary?
On top of these questions may rest other issues, such as the safety of others in the area. Officers must process all these considerations almost instantly.
Additionally, a newly recognized and apparently growing phenomenon of suicide-by-cop has entered the picture. Whether knowingly or not, many who want to end their lives create a situation where a police officer is forced to kill them. For some reason, they cannot do the job themselves but create a situation where an unfortunate police officer is forced to do it.
You may find yourself in a difficult paradox. On one hand, you find yourself in a circumstance where even a second or two of hesitation may cost you your life. On the other hand, you must process several considerations before you use deadly force. That's why planning, preparation and tactics remain so important. Good tactics can prove so overpowering that a rational suspect will not even try to resist or mount an assault. Of course, not all suspects are rational.
Many officers who have overcome and survived deadly assaults refer to an important mindset. As distasteful as it may sound, you must be able to kill. If taking the life of a violent criminal is the only way to prevent the death of an innocent person or defend yourself, the choice is clear. Unfortunately, officers must consider these contingencies and prepare mentally.
All officers should hope and pray they never have to take a life. To fulfill this hope, focus on preparation, preventative planning, good tactics and the use of less-lethal technology and methods. When, in spite of all this, the horrible choice comes before you, you must be mentally prepared to exercise the last resort