What is Missing from Excessive Force Discussion?

February 7, 2017

Do we need a mechanism that allows a law enforcement officer to admit they have a bias when they are involved with an on the job tragedy?  Georgia law has special exceptions for law enforcement officers accused of a criminally negligent or malicious death.  Unlike civilians, police officers charged with a crime can participate in the Grand Jury proceedings against them.   This courtesy takes into consideration the difficulty of their daily responsibilities and allows them to replay the incident from their point of view before a jury of their peers.   However, if we want to truly address the issue of excessive force by police, we may need another mechanism that allows an officer to admit his fatal mistake was based on some type of bias.  Open and honest reflection by the persons accused of using force is the only way to get to the truth of excessive force in America. 


There is no doubt law enforcement has important responsibility and difficult job.  The high-pressured situations that are inherent in policing increases the likelihood of a tragic incident.  Recent studies out of Chicago and Nashville report minorities are targeted by law enforcement at higher rates than non-minorities.  What we do not know is whether this increased targeting of minorities is solely a result of personal bias of individual officers or if there is an inherent and often invisible bias stemming from the foundation of our Country.  The distinction between personal and inherent bias is important because there is no amount of training that can fix personal hatred.  However, systemic biases in training and operations can be rooted out if officers can speak openly to point those biases out.  The solution to America’s excessive force issue lies in self-reflection and open, unfettered, communication by law enforcement.


 I, like most people, presume that most law enforcement officers are good, hard-working, people.  This presumption leads me to believe that in most cases of excessive force, the officers are outwardly dealing with the high stress of the incident while unknowingly dealing with their inherent biases. 


The potential for imprisonment is the biggest inhibitor to our solution.  An officer having deep reflection may uncover why certain movements looked more threatening coming from one individual rather than another.  However, if the officer admits he or she learned to fear people with certain characteristics that officer will face criminal and civil liability.  In our current system, there is zero incentive to address inherent bias because acknowledging bias is an admission of guilt that tends to incite the community, and eventually leads to full prosecution. 


Allowing officers to address the fact that they are human and that they make mistakes is the first step to pulling back the layers of inherent bias.  Only other law enforcement personnel can bring clarity to those not ready or able to identify what this inherent biases look like.  Those


that are built into the system can become more obvious if we make the path for addressing those biases easier.  I’m not suggesting we completely exonerate law enforcement from taking legal responsibility for things that happen at work.  However, at this time we have to think outside the box if we truly want to address the excessive force issue.


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