Recently, two Pasadena, California police officers were faced with an officer involved shooting (OIS). They fired upon Kendrec McDade, a 19-year old African-American man. Police dispatchers previously advised officers that both McDade, and his accomplice were in possession of a gun.
Oscar Carillo, initially believed to be a victim only, called 911 reporting that two men robbed him. He stated, “Two guys put a gun in my face.” The police dispatcher established the race of the two suspects, the clothing worn by each, and the direction of travel taken.
In essence, Oscar Carillo verbally placed a gun in the hand of each suspect during his conversation with the dispatcher. There was no reason for the police department to believe the information Carillo provided was not accurate. Later, police learned that the information about the guns was false.
Officers responded to the area. As McDade, the suspect, ran from one officer, he ran in the direction of another seated in his patrol unit. Community members question why the officer was sitting in the car. Based on media reports, it appears that the officer was in his patrol unit to use the vehicle to provide cover and concealment. Cover and concealment are common tactics practiced during firearms training.
Both officers observed McDade reach into his waist area when he approached the officer in the vehicle. At this point, their handling of this incident had to change. As a result of this threatening movement, each officer fired on him. Media reports indicate that the officer in the vehicle feared for his life. The officer in foot pursuit fired to defend the officer in the patrol car.
I believe the officers’ behavior will be found to be an appropriate defensive action. Both had reason to believe McDade was armed as he actively avoided apprehension and ran in their direction. Neither officer fired upon McDade initially. Although both officers had cause for arrest, he had not yet engaged in behavior, which would cause either of the officers to fear for their lives or that of another. Once he reached for his waist area, everything changed.
News outlets have not recognized that police took an accomplice (unnamed because he was a juvenile) into custody without the use of deadly physical force. This suggests that one of two things occurred. Either the juvenile accomplice surrendered to the police, or he put up a minimal amount of resistance.
The unfortunate result of our 24-hour news cycle and a generally hostile atmosphere toward law enforcement in the media and within some communities is a rush to judgment on any use of force incident. At this time, the media and the community are inappropriately asking which officer fired first. It doesn’t matter. What is important is if the actions of the officers were appropriate in meeting departmental guidelines and recognized standards for using force.
The United States Supreme Court’s definition of the appropriate use of force under Graham v. Connor is that officers must use no more force than is objectively reasonable. Graham v. Connor is the metric for use of force investigations. The finding of the Supreme Court in Graham was that all use of force arrests will be judged by the objective reasonable standard of the Fourth Amendment.
The Court also held that use of force will be viewed from the perspective of an officer on the scene and without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. The fact that most members of society are not aware of this is the very reason tension fills the air when a life is lost as a result of an OIS. What officers perceived at the scene and what the media, and the public perceive in retrospect may be very different.
The Supreme Court indicated the following three-part test is required in order to determine objective reasonableness:
How serious is the offense?
Did the suspect pose a threat to the officer or others?
Was the suspect actively resisting or trying to evade arrest?
Many communities fail to assign any responsibility to their constituents, as is the case in the Pasadena incident. McDade and the accomplice chose to commit a crime. Carillo chose to lie about a portion of that crime. McDade chose to run from police. Pasadena Police Department officers were put into a position in which one officer perceived an immediate threat to his life, and a second officer perceived a threat on the life of his fellow officer. After the shooting occurred, police learned that Carillo lied about the suspects having guns to initiate a quicker police response. These facts do not remove the need for an internal investigation to be initiated immediately to determine if the officers involved used objective reasonableness.
One life lost is one life too many whether it is a member of the public or a law enforcement officer. The public tends not to appreciate law enforcement’s professionalism. Approximately, 800,000 police officers serve throughout America. Many never fire a gun during their entire careers. Officer involved shootings rarely happen.
The public is constantly made aware of an OIS when these incidents go viral across the Internet and receive continual media coverage. The result is every OIS falls upon the scrutiny of the whole country; yet few citizens are educated on use of force legal issues. Unfortunately, it is rare that an expert in police use of force or an individual familiar with Graham v. Connor standards is interviewed or quoted in media reports.
The most-recent statistics indicate that law enforcement fatalities are up to 14% over 2010 nationwide. The threat to LEO’s is quite clear. Use of force incidents are actually a response to a threat; that is, a defensive vs. an offensive tactic. Officers are not trained to kill. Police are trained to protect themselves and others as dictated by the circumstances. Officers involved in an OIS become traumatized and can even require hospitalization. No LEO takes an OIS lightly.
I always open my first day of class with my college criminal-justice students by discussing an OIS as well as circumstances involved in being detained in public by a police officer. I emphasize the reasons why an LEO may temporarily detain them. I brief my students about how to avoid escalation of an incident and respectfully respond to police lawful orders. This opens up dialogue with them. Communication is always the key to gain cooperation through understanding.
Police officers are held accountable via departmental guidelines, use of force investigations, internal affairs/professional standards offices, criminal trials, civil litigation, and trial by media. Police departments and their communities must also work together to educate citizens about behavior, which can lead to a tragic incident like the McDade shooting. Under Graham v. Connor, both the behavior of the citizen and that of police is the measuring stick which determines on a case by case basis if objective reasonableness was present during a use of force incident.
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