Police Officers Deserve the Benefit of the Doubt

police officers deserve the benefit of the doubt picture

As a result of several nationally publicized incidents involving the police use of force, and in particular, deadly force against black men, who were sometimes armed and sometimes not, it has become increasingly common to challenge the police version of events, and particularly for a significant proportion of the black community, to ignore the completion of investigations of such incidents, and to view the police account of these incidents with increasing skepticism. In effect, police are no longer being given the benefit of the doubt, by at minimum, a vociferous dimension of the black community. In fact, most recently, it has been reported that police may have even planted evidence, which would indeed be a monstrously disturbing development. Notwithstanding, police deserve, and must be granted the benefit of the doubt in their line of work for several reasons.

First, unlike most other vocations, members of law enforcement risk their lives each day as an inherent characteristic of policing. They do so to implement the responsibility of government on behalf of all citizens, that being, to maintain order in society. “On average, one law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty somewhere in the United States every 61 hours. Since the first known line-of-duty death in 1791, more than 20,000 U.S. law enforcement officers have made the ultimate sacrifice.” (NLEOMF 2016) National news coverage surrounding “in line of duty deaths” is generally scant, and does not reflect the devastating impact of these sudden and horrific losses on families, effected police departments, and the local community. These officers knowingly assume the risk of great bodily harm or death in order to make their community safe for residents and businesses. Police officers can, and sometimes are, gunned down by simply pulling a vehicle over for a traffic infraction; or knocking on a door in response to a call for assistance. Even with their ballistic vests, the risk of being killed is ever present, given the nature of the job. This risk alone, warrants that officers be given the benefit of the doubt in the use of force, including deadly force, to protect their lives, the lives of fellow officers, and the lives of citizens in their communities.

Police officers sometimes encounter dangerous individuals, often unaware of an imminent life-threatening situation, until they are attacked with a deadly weapon. In 2006 Sheriff’s Deputy James McGrane, of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department in New Mexico, was shot and killed by Michael Astorga during a traffic stop. Astorga was wanted for another murder at the time. (KOAT 2015) Deputy McGrane had no chance to defend himself. He was viciously ambushed and murdered. Even when officers become aware of imminent danger, they often have a split second to react and defend their lives. As a result of a number of highly publicized police shootings of black men, police departments have been pressured to implement the use of body and dashboard cameras. Yet, video alone of a police shooting incident, is rarely determining of whether the use of deadly force was justified. Video almost never reflects the complete depiction of a violent encounter, and information from video cameras must be considered and weighed in relation to other evidence, including the officer’s account, witness testimony, the medical examiner’s report, and forensic evidence. The liberal narrative that police officers are targeting unarmed black men is simply not supported by data on officer involved shootings.

According to the Washington Post, their 2015 national study of police shootings indicated there were 990 fatal police shootings. Fifty (50%) percent of these shootings involved whites and 26% involved blacks. The police fatally shot 36 unarmed blacks and 31 unarmed white males. The Post’s classification of victims as “unarmed” is literally accurate but sometimes misleading. The label can fail to convey the charged situation facing the officer who used deadly force.

At least five “unarmed” black victims had tried to grab the officer’s gun, or had been beating the cop with his own equipment. Some were shot from an accidental discharge triggered by their own assault on the officer. One had the officer on the ground and was beating him on the head so violently, breaking bones and causing other injuries, as to risk the officer’s loss of consciousness. And one individual included in the Post’s “unarmed black male victim” category was a bystander unintentionally struck by an officer’s bullet after an illegal-gun trafficker opened fire at the officer and the officer shot back. If a victim was not the intended target of a police shooting, race could have had no possible role in his death. (Washington Post 2015)

In effect, the evidence indicates that police are not using deadly force against citizens based upon race, or any other physical attribute. Moreover, the vast majority of police involved shootings reflected suspects who were armed, and attacked or otherwise threatened police officers. Only 5% of officer involved shootings reflected the kinds of circumstances which raise questions about the use of deadly force by police. Thus, the vast majority of incidents of the use of force by police were justified actions by law enforcement officers.

Third, it must be observed that law enforcement officers are held accountable for their actions in performing their duties. In any American law enforcement jurisdiction, officer involved shootings are investigated by one or more agencies independent of the incident officer’s police department. For example, in the Ferguson Missouri case involving the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson, both the local district attorney, and the US Attorney General, through the FBI, conducted complete and independent investigations. Officers are criminally charged when an examination of the facts warrants state and/or federal prosecution. Hence, there is a huge incentive for officers to perform their duties, especially involving the use of deadly force, in accordance with police department policies and state and federal laws.

Fourth, it must be observed that police officers have a legal and moral right to defend themselves and other innocent parties, by taking reasonable actions to protect their lives, and the lives of others who may be party to a dangerous incident. As matter of policy, and common sense, officers do not have to subject themselves to great bodily harm or possible death, before they act in self-defense. The failure to act at a moment of life threatening danger would undermine police officers’ ability to enforce the law without subjecting themselves to injury or death. “On August 7 (2015), a Birmingham, Alabama, police detective was beaten unconscious with his own gun when an unarmed suspect allegedly attacked him during a traffic stop. On August 14 the detective explained that the incident had the chance to escalate because he “hesitated” to shoot an unarmed man.” (Breitbart 2015) Officers are charged with enforcing the law; and we must be mindful that they do not get “do-overs” on the job. They assume great risks in doing their work; but they can and must take reasonable actions to protect themselves against such inherent risks.

Finally, in an ideal world man would be basically good, and there would be no crime, and consequently no need for police officers. Notwithstanding, as the Scripture declares, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick…” (Jer 17:9 NASB) So, contrary to what many people want to believe, man is basically evil; and because of wicked behavior, government has been established, and is charged with maintaining order through the punishment of evil. Police officers are the agency which executes the principle responsibility of government; and despite their human flaws, and the rare and regrettable harm they may unjustly inflict in the discharge of their duty, they are indeed necessary for the protection of life and property, and to maintain a civil society. For all of the foregoing reasons, law enforcement officers rightly deserve and earn, by virtue of their service, the benefit of the doubt.

Article By Allen Sutton