No law enforcement officer wants to be responsible for ending a human life.
We go into police work to protect lives, not take them. Policing is a cause. It’s what we do. Everything we learn, everything we train in and practice is aimed at minimizing the chances we will be forced by the actions of a violent criminal to use force that results in someone dying, no matter how much evil that someone has perpetrated. But we know from the first day we pin on the badge our own death or the death of a bad guy could happen one day, from our first shift on the job to the last.
America has a military — young men and women who put their lives on the line — because the world contains people who hate us and will cause us great harm if given the opportunity. Sometimes those young men and women have to take lives to protect us.
Within the borders of our own country there are violent criminals who will perpetrate great harm unless prevented by someone. That “someone” is often the mostly-young man or woman who wears a badge and has taken an oath to protect the flock from the wolves even at great risk to his or her own life. The great majority of the time they serve us and shield us without having to take a life. But it is not always possible to do that. The violent criminal makes the choice and drives what happens next.
I see an alarming trend in the country. I see a gaggle of politicians, national media hacks and self-appointed police experts making blanket condemnations of police officers based on the conduct of a very few bad cops. Often the “information” for their rants turns out to be false.
What truly concerns me is they may be making law enforcement officers nationwide hesitant to react to save their own lives or the lives of others for fear of being demonized. And that’s tragic for all of us.
I believe it is a factor in the number of law enforcement officers being murdered in the country of late. I also don’t think it is a mystery why violent crime is suddenly skyrocketing in many big cities today. In some of those cities the cops are answering their calls but initiating nothing on their own.
As they try to protect their careers from attack, they give the violent criminals free reign. I could never support what those officers are doing, but I understand it.
Like many law enforcement agencies today, at GPD we are continuously exploring ways to revise our training and practices to emphasize the sanctity of human life, the importance of de-escalation, and alternatives to the use of lethal force. Some of the material comes from sources such as the recent President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the recommendations of the Police Executive Research Forum.
PERF, generally considered a pretty liberal law enforcement organization, notes the following in big, bold type in its latest publication, Guiding Principles on Use of Force: “There will always be situations where police officers will have to use force, including deadly force, to protect the public or themselves.”
It reinforces what a Greeley citizen told me a while back: “Chief, I get it. If you point a gun at a cop, you’re probably gonna get shot.” That’s the honest truth. It’s true whether you are in Greeley, Sun City, or Muleshoe. Police officers want to go home to their loved ones, too.
There’s something else that scares me. Our contacts in the Colorado Department of Corrections tell us some very dangerous criminals are now leaving prison and returning to Weld County after years of incarceration. Some of them have serious mental issues to accompany their violent tendencies.
Add to that the reality we are seeing more guns in the hands of offenders lately and I am not encouraged there will be no future confrontations. The fact remains Greeley is an extremely safe city for our citizens, as evidenced by our unprecedented 19 percent decrease in Part One crimes this past year. But for your police officers, the threats are real and potentially deadly.
I truly wish I could promise Greeley police officers would never be faced with another lethal force decision, but clearly that’s unlikely. It’s the nature of our business those terrible decisions will have to be made. What I can promise is we will do everything humanly possible to find other alternatives. It is vital we do it without needlessly risking the lives of our officers or the citizens we have sworn to protect from evil.
After all, saving innocent lives is what we are sworn to do.
— Jerry Garner is the Police Chief Greeley, Colorado.
Originally published at the Greeley Tribune.