No One Becomes a Cop Because It’s Safe

The shooting of a Georgia Tech student reminds us that police officers need to accept the risk that comes with showing restraint.

Scout Schultz.

Remembering Scout Schultz/Facebook

A student at Georgia Tech was shot dead by a police officer Saturday night after refusing to comply with orders. 21-year-old Scout Schultz, who identified as gender nonbinary and used they/them pronouns, was in the midst of what their family’s lawyer says was a mental health crisis. A video of Schultz’s final moments, filmed from a window shortly before midnight, shows police officers pointing their weapons and shouting “drop the knife!” and “do not move!” Scout Schultz responds, “Kill me.”

While the shooting is still being examined by state investigators, it’s not too early to make an informed prediction about how the Georgia Tech police will attempt to justify Schultz’s death. They will almost certainly argue that this was a clear-cut case of police officers facing a potentially lethal threat and making the reasonable decision to protect themselves from lethal risk.

Some version of this argument has been used to defend countless police officers in the wake of shootings that have struck many Americans as avoidable. Timothy Loehmann said he was scared for his life when he shot Tamir Rice in Cleveland; he thought Rice, who was holding a toy gun, was brandishing a real weapon. Randall Kerrick said he was scared, too, when he shot Jonathan Ferrell outside Charlotte, North Carolina; he thought Ferrell was lunging toward him with an object in his hand. Dante Servin was also scared when he shot Rekia Boyd in Chicago; he thought one of her friends had pulled out a weapon.

In each of those cases, a prosecutor, jurors, or a judge accepted the premise that an on-duty shooting can be justified as long as the officer in question had a reasonable (if objectively unwarranted) fear of losing his life if he didn’t apply lethal force. There’s a certain pragmatism embedded in this logic. Police officers need to make instantaneous high-pressure decisions. If we insist on punishing them for sometimes making the wrong call, we’ll hinder their ability to do their jobs. The logical conclusion of this line of argument, then, is that we have to tolerate a few bad, even fatal, decisions in order to make it possible for police to make good ones.

That’s the theory. The facts on the ground are that, according to the Washington Post, 963 people—including 44 who had toy weapons, 48 who were unarmed, and 241 who were known to suffer from mental illness—were shot and killed by police in the United States last year. It may be true that some of those shootings happened because well-intentioned, well-trained officers were forced into impossible situations. It’s also true that a lot of those shootings might have been avoided if American police officers weren’t trained to be so afraid of the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting.

In May 2015, I wrote about the “grim canon of videos” shown to police officers during training. These videos, many of which are shot with dashboard cameras, show a succession of officers being murdered because they waited too long to use deadly force. As I wrote at the time, the videos are meant to serve as “a chilling reminder to never lose sight of the unpredictability [officers] face on the street—and to resist any political pressure they might feel to forget their training in the face of danger.”

One particularly famous video in law enforcement circles shows the 1998 murder of Deputy Kyle Dinkheller of Georgia’s Laurens County Sheriff’s Office. The three-and-a-half minute “Dinkheller tape” shows the deputy pulling over a car on the side of a highway and getting a rifle pulled on him. After ordering the man to put the gun down five times, Dinkheller gets shot, and the man runs back into his truck and drives off.

“There were multiple times when he would have been justified in using deadly force against that individual with the rifle, and he either hesitated or chose not to do it,” said Dave Grossi when I interviewed him in 2015. Grossi, a former police lieutenant in upstate New York who spent 12 years as a private law enforcement trainer, told me videos like the Dinkheller tape teach recruits to avoid making tactical mistakes.

The most striking conversation I had about these videos was with Emanuel Kapelsohn, who sits on the board of directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors. “One of the biggest problems we have in police training today,” Kapelsohn told me, “is getting officers to understand when they need to use force and getting them to be willing to use it.”

He pointed to a news story about an officer who declined to fire his gun at a suspect who was running toward him while holding his hand in his pocket. Although the officer was feted in the press for his restraint after successfully making the arrest, Kapelsohn sharply criticized his approach after watching body-cam footage of the incident. “From a professional point of view, the officer made an extremely poor tactical decision and needs to be retrained, not commended,” he said. “Whether Ferguson was going through his head, I don’t know. Whether Staten Island was going through his head, I don’t know. But an officer has to be prepared and trained and capable of shooting someone even though he doesn’t want to. This was someone who needed to be shot, should have been shot.”

That’s the mindset of a person whose job it is to train police officers on how to use their guns. As I wish I’d emphasized when I originally wrote my 2015 story, it’s a mindset that is undermined by the relative infrequency with which police officers are killed in the line of duty. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, firearms-related officer fatalities peaked in 1973, when 156 officers were shot and killed, then dropped to an average of 87 per year in the 1980s, 68 per year in the 1990s, and 57 per year in the 2000s. In 2016, 64 officers were fatally shot, five of them during the sniper attack in Dallas that July and three more 10 days later during a Missouri man’s rampage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

No doubt one of the reasons these numbers are not higher is that police officers are trained to fear for their lives. It’s thanks in part to the Dinkheller tape and others like it that officers who think they might be in fatal danger tend to act quickly to neutralize the threat. But it is impossible to draw this connection, or to say that police training keeps officers safe, without considering the trade-offs involved, and what those trade-offs mean for civilians—particularly black people and the mentally ill, both groups that are shot by police at a disproportionate rate.

I’m reminded of a December 2015 piece written by my colleague Jamelle Bouie after prosecutors announced that the officers responsible for killing Tamir Rice wouldn’t be charged. He wrote:

Part of policing is risk. Not just the inevitable risk of the unknown, but voluntary risk. We ask police to “serve and protect” the broad public, which—at times—means accepting risk when necessary to defuse dangerous situations and protect lives, innocent or otherwise. It’s why we give them weapons and the authority to use them; why we compensate them with decent salaries and generous pensions; why we hold them in high esteem and why we give them wide berth in procedure and practice.

Along these same lines, Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow wrote a piece in March 2015 interrogating an oft-repeated mantra that has been called “the first rule of law enforcement”: that the “No. 1 duty of a police officer is to go home to his or her family at the end of the shift.”

Blow wrote:

[It] sounds so obvious at first that of course we nod along.

But wait. Really? Is that the No. 1 duty of a police officer?

If so, then an officer is always right to shoot in any dangerous encounter. Or potentially dangerous. Or conceivably dangerous. Or most any time.

If self-preservation is the first and foremost priority of a police officer, then you get what we have seen in recent months and years—a series of unsettling police shootings.

After acknowledging that he lacks the courage to do what police officers do, Blow continued:

I so appreciate their willingness to assume the risks of the job.

But there’s the crux of the matter. They have willingly taken a job that involves personal risk. It also requires split-second decision making that must go beyond simple self-preservation.

If going home safely becomes the overriding priority, that can become another way of saying, “Shoot first and ask questions later.”

How much risk is it fair to ask a police officer to take? Speaking as someone who has never patrolled a dark alley, answered a 911 call, or raced to the scene of a shooting spree, my first inclination is to say, “I don’t know and it’s not for me to judge.”

My second inclination, though, is to say that it’s a police officer’s job to take risks the rest of us are unable or unwilling to take. That is why the vast majority of police officers, the ones who perform their duties admirably and selflessly, deserve our respect and admiration. The reason we revere cops isn’t their dedication to protecting their own lives. It’s their dedication to protecting ours.