WASHINGTON -- The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has reopened the debate over law enforcement protocol and the use of deadly force.
Brown, 18, was shot multiple times on Saturday by a police officer while he and a friend were walking down the street in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. Accounts differ on what led to the fatal shooting -- the Ferguson Police Department has alleged that Brown assaulted the officer, while eyewitnesses have said Brown was either trying to surrender or leave the scene when he was killed.
Brown's death has sparked tense protests in Ferguson and an uproar on social media over law enforcement and racial bias. Some studies have found that police officers are more likely to use excessive force toward black men, and critics are using Brown's killing as yet another example of the need to revisit law enforcement training and protocol.
In the wake of what President Barack Obama described as Brown's "heartbreaking" death, many are asking: Under what circumstances does the law justify the use of deadly force by a police officer? And should police be subject to more oversight on this issue?
The Justice Department is looking for answers as well. It has opened an inquiry into Brown's death, but it also announced on Tuesday that it would take a look at the use of deadly force more broadly, as part of an extensive review of police tactics.
Under current federal standards, police officers can use deadly force to apprehend criminal suspects in the event of "probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm ... to the officer or to others."
Critics argue that officers are applying the deadly force rule too broadly and wind up unnecessarily killing suspects or people who are unarmed and pose no real threat. They've also charged that deadly force is more often used against minorities as a result of racial profiling by law enforcement.
In Ferguson alone, statistics point to serious evidence of racial bias in law enforcement practices. "Blacks in Ferguson are twice as likely to be stopped by police as whites, according to an annual report on racial profiling by the Missouri attorney general," the LA Times reported on Monday. "Last year, 93% of arrests following car stops in Ferguson were of blacks. Ninety-two percent of searches and 80% of car stops involved blacks, the report said."
In his book The Encyclopedia of Police Science, author William G. Bailey notes that several studies on police have found that minorities, especially blacks, are more likely to be victims of deadly force. And a 2005 study by researchers at Florida State University, in which police officers participated in simulation exercises, found that a mostly white and mostly male group of Florida cops were more likely to shoot at unarmed black suspects, while letting white suspects who were armed go.
Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who specializes in police accountability, said the trend of racial profiling has continued for decades because police are rarely made to answer for instances in which they've used deadly force. The federal government does not track how many people are killed by police in confrontations, and few officers are prosecuted or convicted unless a case receives national attention.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called for greater oversight and transparency on the use of deadly force to improve police accountability and better monitor for possible racial bias. Others have pushed for legislative solutions, such as a minimum force bill that would encourage officers to shoot a suspect in the limbs as opposed to areas that could lead to death. Four years ago, a pair of Democratic lawmakers in Brooklyn, New York, introduced such a bill in response to the case of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man who was shot dead by the NYPD while leaving his bachelor party.
Whenever the debate over deadly force resurfaces, law enforcement leaders usually argue that shooting to injure, rather than kill, poses more problems than it solves. They've argued that it is impractical to stop dangerous behavior by shooting at an arm or a leg, and that aiming at a limb could also result in an inaccurate shot that accidentally hits the wrong person.
In recent years, more officers have started to use stun guns as an intermediary method to subdue a suspect without causing death or injury, though the tactic is more often used if an individual is refusing to cooperate but not dangerous. Walker also noted that many officers still don't carry stun guns, and those who do are more likely to reach for their actual gun than a stun gun if they think a suspect poses a significant threat.
In Brown's case, the teen was not a suspect, and he did not possess a weapon. The justification provided by Ferguson Police does not seem to fit the deadly force protocol, Walker said.
Dorian Johnson, Brown's friend who was with him when he was shot, told MSNBC that a police officer initiated the altercation.
"His exact words were get the f--k on the sidewalk," Johnson told MSNBC.
The only struggle that occurred, according to Johnson, was when the officer grabbed Brown by the neck and Brown tried to pull away from him. Johnson described Brown running from officers, but then putting his hands up and and saying "I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!"
He was shot several times soon after, Johnson said.
"I haven't heard or seen any evidence that it was necessary. There's been no allegation that he had a gun or a knife or there was any threat to the officer's life," Walker said, adding that police have failed to adequately explain the struggle they claim transpired between Brown and the officer before the shooting.
Walker said he's not optimistic about the local investigation into Brown's death, based on statements by county officials that appear to side with the police officer. But, he said, he hopes that a federal probe might shine a light on better ways to train officers.
Departments could place more emphasis on behavioral training for confrontations between police and nonviolent individuals, Walker said. The police officer in Ferguson could have approached Brown and Johnson politely rather than possibly seeking a confrontation, he added.
"The officer pulls up and says, 'Get the eff off the street' … that right there, that kind of rudeness and disrespect is what people of color in this country experience day in and day out," Walker said. "That kind of experience which becomes routine undermines trust and respect for the police."