California bill aims to restrict when police officers may fire their weapons

How many lives can a word save? That’s the question on California lawmakers minds, as they consider a proposed bill to change the word reasonable to necessary.

We’re talking of course about use of force laws as they apply to when a police officer is allowed to shoot at people. The debate follows another shooting of an unarmed black man, 22-year-old Stephon Clark of Sacramento. State lawmakers are now making the case that current laws are inadequate to protect the population.

NPR reports that in 2017, of the one hundred and sixty-two fatal police shootings, only half of the victims were armed. Some say this is a compelling statistic, others in the law enforcement community are not convinced.

The argument against changing the law emphasize that policing is a dangerous job and that there are thousands of unsung success stories every year (that is, instances when a perpetrator is detained but not shot). Both of these are true, but neither are sufficient to shut down a conversation about police brutality.

A question that doesn’t get asked very often, probably because it’s a difficult one to talk about, is how dangerous of a job should policing be? We should celebrate our police force, because when they sign up for that job they’re committing themselves to being put into harm’s way day in and day out. But when they vow to “protect and serve”, how literally should this be taken?

Is the primary role of a police officer to protect and serve the community [which includes the perpetrator, especially one that hasn’t been proven guilty]? Or is it to protect and serve the community only up to the point when potentially real, tangible danger has presented itself?

It would seem that the most significant issue in this debate is the often arbitrary environment which surrounds police encounters. Non-compliance by perpetrators, whether done intentionally or accidentally (for instance, mental instability or simply because they can’t hear/process orders) seems to be the most regularly cited reason for police making the decision to fire on a suspect.

Reasonable pundits can accept the legitimacy of this point – but the question remains, is the possibility that a perpetrator has a gun sufficient reason to kill them? What if you ask them to lie down and they refuse, is that an offense punishable by death? How many compounding factors does it take to justify the use of lethal force?

It’s heart-breaking to hear of police shootings in which the officers went straight to deadly force, without verification of imminent danger and without exhausting non-lethal tactics such as pepper spray or a stun gun.

With that said, we all need to acknowledge that we’re paying these officers to be our first line of defense against occasionally violent criminals, and therefore their limitations as human beings may cause them to make significant mistakes in handling situations. Our goal should be to clearly define when we accept that use of deadly force – should we limit them to only when necessary, or would that be beyond the tolerance we allocate to their safety?

It’s yet to be seen what will happen with this bill – and although it is far from a comprehensive solution to the issue, at least legislators acknowledge the problem and are trying to make a difference.

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