8. Can Police Shoot A fleeing Felon?

April 27, 2015

Today I’ve been watching the rioters in Baltimore on cable news, where the Crips, the Bloods, the Black Guerrilla Family and other gangs have announced they are “teaming up” to target white police officers.  As of the time of writing seven police officers have been injured in the riot.

I had been wondering how the inner-city black ‘inversion of values’, and the narrative pitting blacks against the police in Baltimore and other American cities, ever gained the momentum with which it now surges forward.  Where, for goodness sake, did people ever get the idea that it was alright to fight with police and to run from them?

Someone reminded me that until recently it was legal for police to shoot a fleeing felon, until the 1970’s he thought.  Actually it was 1985 when the SCOTUS handed down the decision in Tennessee vs. Garner that when an officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, he or she may not use deadly force to prevent an escape unless, “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of harm or serious injury to the officer or others”.

This decision by the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state law in Tennessee, which had said, “if, after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he should either flee or forcibly resist, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest.”

The Garner decision was based on the Fourth Amendment, and construed the killing of a fleeing suspect as a “seizure”, unconstitutional unless “reasonable”.    Because that case involved a ten-dollar purse-snatching, the court was saying that the harm caused by the arrest had to be proportional to the seriousness of the felony.

I believe the ultimate outcome has been an “unintended consequence” of a well-intentioned action: an example of (Eric) Severeid’s Law: “All Problems Are Created By Solutions.

Viewed in the light of hindsight, it seems to me that the ruling caused a paradigm shift in the social contest between cops and robbers.  Basically it said that; a) if the police don’t actually know the extent of your crime, or if it would not have warranted your death, and if b) you can escape from their custody and run away fast enough, you may arrange to, c) not get caught at all and get off scot-free.

Before long this came to include the idea that if you could fight your way out of custody and run… same result.  I suggest that this was a seismic shift in thinking, such that the crimes of committing violence against the police and fleeing from the police were utterly discounted, and the burden fell to the police to not only see and stop crime, but, further, to regularly engage in a violent physical contest with criminals in order to apprehend them.  In the underworld of crime, petty and grand, and eventually in the social narrative of the inner city subculture, the criminals and the police gradually attained equal stature and legitimacy.   To the point where now the criminals, if they are black, are considered to be inherently more legitimate than the police.

The new joke is, “A mother shouldn’t have to worry that her son will be shot every time he goes out to rob a store.”  The sad part is that in inner city neighborhoods it isn’t a joke.

In an e-mail discussion group in which I participate, one writer who clearly hates the police, recently posted a statement that within the past month alone, American police have killed more people that British police have killed since 1910.  I believe that is probably one of those stupid, made-up, wildly hyperbolic statistics that compares apples and oranges and ignores several key factors.  But now I wonder whether, by turning every inner city arrest into a fight and a chase, Tennessee vs. Garner may not have greatly increased the number of people killed during an attempted arrest.  Whereas the British cop still says, “Come along quietly, sir, ” and British people by and large do just that.  Not so long ago in Britain when a Bobby blew his whistle you could tell who was the criminal.  He was the only one running away from the whistle, whereas others were running towards it to offer help to the policeman.  Compare that to inner city communities in America, where whether out of fear or due to racial animus, no one helps the police.

Looking at it from the point of view of behavioral psychology and operant conditioning, perhaps in solving one problem, Tennessee vs Garner created a worse one.

Since 1985 have we had to hire mesomorphic applicants to be law enforcement officers, people ready, willing and able to engage in a fight with a felon?  Have we, of necessity,  hired people who spend their time in the gym and like being pumped up on adrenalin and testosterone?  Have we in turn encouraged criminals to at least try to make a fight of it and a run for it, with a guarantee of enhanced street credibility if they get away?   Have we thus increased the necessity for even police officers who might have been inclined to be respectful, gentle and calm, to reach for a taser or a gun in order to go home safely to their families at the end of the watch?  Have we put older, fatter, female or weaker cops in the position where they have to use a gun to come out of an encounter alive?

Have we made it a rite of passage for a every kid criminal to take on the cops and make a run for it?  Are they then almost righteously indignant when they are bested and caught?