Note: The use of “overuse” in the Motion refers to a pervasive pattern of excessive use, not the existence of a few “bad apples”.
“The scenario is a now familiar one: a police officer, attempting an arrest, fatally shoots an African American, Hispanic American, or other minority person. Word spreads quickly through the deceased's community that the person was unarmed. Crowds gather and rock-throwing begins. There are injuries and arrests. The following day, minority leaders charge that the shooting was unjustified and demand the immediate arrest and indictment of the police officer involved. The police chief refuses to arrest the officer involved, the prosecutor does not indict the officer on grounds that there is insufficient evidence of any wrongdoing, and the next several days are marked by demonstrations, stepped-up police patrols, and further arrests. Finally, the reaction subsides, and the police and protestors settle into an uneasy truce.”
- Police Use of Force: A Conciliation Handbook for the Police and the Community. US Dept of Justice; 1999 (updated 2002), p 8.
Prior to 1985, a majority of the 50 states had laws that authorized the police use of firearms or any other means of deadly force to arrest a person suspected of committing any felony. The Supreme Court's decision in Tennessee v. Garner in 1985 placed restrictions on police use of deadly force. The Court ruled that: "deadly force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."
The above rule leaves plenty of room for judgment calls on the use of deadly force by police officers. Perception of “significant threat” can be influenced by assumptions about individual suspects and is inseparately tied to the overall quality of relations between the community population and the police. Police departments can develop internal cultures that promote hostility and condescension towards the communities they serve, particularly in the case where the ethnic make-up of the community is different from that of the police. This can lead to a lack of trust between the community and the police, exacerbating an “us-versus-them” mentality on both sides.
Those in favor of the motion would argue that hostility and mistrust toward minority communities permeate US police departments and that these racist attitudes have lead to a pattern of using excessive force (both lethal and non-lethal) against minority suspects, especially young black men.
Those against the motion argue that use of lethal force by the police is rare and that a series of anecdotes does not a pattern make. Per the FBI, over 10,000 police are assaulted with a deadly or dangerous weapon in the line of duty every year. And yet the vast majority of encounters with police do not involve use of force, much less use of lethal force.
What do you think? Is there a pattern of overuse of lethal force against minorities? Or not? Or, maybe there simply isn’t enough information to know one way or another?
Join us at the next SFDebate to explore and debate this question. Note that there is a $5 fee charged by the Commonwealth club for non-members to the Club.
If you would like to speak for or against the Motion, or moderate the Debate, please let the organizer – Deborah – know. If we are still lacking speakers at the debate, the organizer will solicit 2 individuals to present arguments for and against the Motion (the arguments –in bullet points - will be provided by the organizer but the speakers are free to deviate from the script)