POLITICS

Police Say They Must Choose Between A Dead Criminal And A Dead Cop. It's Not That Simple.

Some cops say they're becoming too hesitant to shoot bad guys -- but not everyone they kill is a criminal.

A police detective in Birmingham, Alabama, says he faced a decision this month that cops sometimes have to make in the line of duty. He had the choice to shoot, and he says he chose not to. In that way, his story is different from other recent officer-involved controversies. But police found only brief consolation in the fact that nobody ended up dead in this case. The detective says his decision allowed a suspect to beat him unconscious. Police say it could have gotten him killed. And although the decision also likely saved his assailant's life, it did so at a significant cost to the hesitant detective.

Police in Birmingham have raised particular concern over the detective's reason for not pulling the trigger. The detective didn't shoot "because of what's going on in the media," he told CNN last week, suggesting that he and other officers are being "too cautious" due to the fear of being nationally demonized for killing an unarmed man. 

The Birmingham police chief and members of a local police union claim this climate of scrutiny surrounding policing is putting officers in danger. They say that when cops hesitate to use lethal force on criminals, they risk injury or worse. If we'd all show more support for officers and effectively give police the thumbs-up to shoot bad guys without worrying about what it could mean for their careers or public profiles, they argue this wouldn't be so much of a problem.

With hindsight now 20/20 in Birmingham, that explanation sounds fair enough. It's certainly not surprising coming from police unions, which have regularly fought calls for reform and increased accountability, even in the face of high-profile instances of misconduct and criminal behavior. Considering the outcome of the encounter, however, you don't need to be a police advocate to believe it would have been better if the detective had shot the suspect in this case.

But it takes a reductionist view to conclude that the choice in situations like this one is always between a dead criminal and a dead cop.
 
That line of reasoning might hold up in a world where officers only kill criminals who would otherwise kill them. And in fact, police in Birmingham are now using the brazen attack to claim their world actually is that black-and-white. But these arguments ignore a massive gray area -- an expanse occupied by the victims killed by police even though they posed no real threat to officers. Many of them weren't criminals. Some may have been, though they weren't guilty of crimes that should be punished by death. It is these people who have truly catalyzed the national conversation about policing and reform. And in the end, it is the police killings of these people that draw the overwhelming share of public outrage.
 
The incident in Birmingham began on the afternoon of Aug. 7, when the detective, an unnamed, six-year police veteran, made an unrelated traffic stop on his way to interview a robbery witness. Police say he pulled the vehicle over after observing it driving erratically on the highway. The detective called for backup and told the driver to stay in his car. The driver refused.
 

Instead, police say he exited his car, approached the detective and began aggressively questioning why he'd been pulled over. It's not entirely clear how the situation escalated, but as police might say, an altercation ensued. The detective says he opted not to use force, giving the unarmed suspect time to gain control of his gun and pistol-whip him until he stopped moving. The suspect, later identified as 34-year-old Janard Cunningham, then fled. Police arrested him hours later after a manhunt and charged him with attempted murder. Alabama news site AL.com reports that Cunningham has a lengthy criminal record, including prior felony convictions for assault.

The detective was treated at a local hospital for a concussion and cuts to his head and face. He was released later that day. Birmingham police say it could have turned out a lot worse for the detective. They've also taken issue with the immediate response to the beating, calling out social media posts that suggest some bystanders neglected to help the detective and instead were quick to revel in his pain.

In comments to AL.com, Heath Boackle, a sergeant with the Birmingham Police Department and president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, said the posts show that "boots-on-the-ground officers across this country are at war," and that police can only win if citizens and local governments "stand behind us." Rhetoric like this has the effect of boiling down the substantive debate over policing into an ideological war between cops and criminals. Of course, it's not that simple. But to those who believe it is, police are only asking for the public's unconditional support in this struggle. Who wouldn't back police over the criminals intent on killing them?

While two posts on social media don't necessarily point to the sort of systemic issue Boackle is raising, his remarks do speak to a real tension between police and citizens in many communities across the nation. Some law enforcement officials have blamed the media in part for these strained relations, claiming that critical coverage has led officers to lose the respect of many neighborhoods, and particularly minority neighborhoods. In some communities, however, faith in police evaporated long before the most recent wave of news about shootings and brutality.

A frequent argument from law enforcement, as in the Birmingham case, is that such scrutiny causes officers to worry about facing consequences for actions that they see as both integral to effective police work and, in some instances, necessary for self-preservation.

In January, for example, the vice president of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, police union said officers were considering leaving the force following a decision to charge two of its officers with murder in the controversial 2014 shooting of homeless camper James Boyd.

"These officers are terrified," he said in a statement. "They are scared to do their job."

Video of that incident showed officers killing Boyd in the Albuquerque foothills, where police say he was illegally camping. He had a knife at the time of the shooting and officers maintained they shot out of concern for their safety. But prosecutors said Boyd was complying with police until they unnecessarily escalated the confrontation. Although Albuquerque police had faced significant criticism for their involvement in the fatal shootings of 28 people over a five-year period, this is now the first case in the department's history in which officers have been charged with murder for actions in the line of duty.

Some say the charges are a step toward justice for Boyd, but they also play into what police advocates see as a broader trend of the public failing to support officers who must make quick and critical decisions about using force. And to people like Boackle, the solution to that problem is resolute and one-sided: "Stand behind us," or else the bad guys will win.

This is an oversimplification, but the conflict between cops and criminals obviously exists. Policing is a difficult and dangerous job, and we should support officers who perform their duties well. Good police officers die every year while answering the call to protect and serve. While deadly violence against police has been falling for years, criminals killed 51 officers in the line of duty last year, a significant increase over the 2013 total, which was the lowest in decades. Data from 2015, compiled by the nonprofit Officer Down Memorial Page, shows fewer officers have been feloniously killed this year than up to this point in 2014.

We shouldn't dismiss this threat. And police officials shouldn't overstate it. Though the Birmingham detective's comments suggest he didn't want to become the next Darren Wilson -- the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown last summer -- elsewhere, there is undoubtedly an officer who is equally scared of becoming the next Sean Bolton, the Memphis, Tennessee, cop gunned down during a traffic stop earlier this month. 

That fear is very real, and admittedly it's not something that can be truly understood from behind a desk. The situation looks different from within an office than it does through the eyes of a police officer. But the answer to this unpredictable threat shouldn't be to expect the public to support less discriminate uses of lethal force, just because officers might be dealing with a suspect who is willing to use violence. While that must be a terrifying part of the job, it's still part of the job they signed up for.

One particularly tone-deaf police union official showed just where these expectations can lead.

"It's very disturbing when an officer is worried about doing his job and doing it correctly," said David Crews, another ranking member of Birmingham's Fraternal Order of Police, in comments to the city's NBC affiliate, WVTM. "You're expected to go out and do your job and if you do it well, you should be commended at the end of the day."

As with all professions, police officers everywhere should be worried about doing their jobs -- and certainly about doing them correctly. The demanding nature of police work does not place officers above reproach. And in fact, as public servants whose salaries and budgets are paid by the citizens they protect, perhaps it makes sense that they are in some cases more prone to it.

In retrospect, it's easy for police to say the Birmingham case epitomizes the popular law enforcement maxim that "he who hesitates is lost." The inherent dangers of policing mean officers must act judiciously when deciding when to use force and when not to. In this case, an officer made a decision that cost him dearly. Given another chance, perhaps he'd choose differently, possibly leaving us with a dead criminal instead of an unconscious cop.

But it won't be long before an officer somewhere will draw his firearm on a "criminal" who isn't a criminal at all. And in that situation, the officer's choice not to shoot will have drastically different implications. Perhaps, like Boyd, he will be someone who prosecutors say should still be alive. Or maybe, like Tamir Rice, he will be the 12-year-old boy who doesn't get killed for playing with a toy gun at a park. For all the hand-wringing about hesitation, it's worth remembering that the lack of hesitation has led to its fair share of tragedies, too. 

Because every citizen who makes a furtive movement is not preparing to attack. Every suspect who reaches for his waistband is not going for a gun. Every young black male who expresses frustration with an officer's actions is not a violent criminal. As a new report by a prominent police research and policy group concludes, officers must be better trained to respond appropriately to such encounters as they develop, not further encouraged to shoot first and find out the truth later.

Policing is a challenging profession with high stakes, both for officers and the civilians they serve. With that in mind, we must insist on high standards and continue to demand accountability from a system that has lacked it for so long. Only by showing a willingness to learn from the public's criticism can police fully regain our trust and hope to earn our unconditional support. 

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