Use of deadly force can’t always be avoided

The shooting death of an unarmed young man in Ferguson, Missouri, has focused attention on officer-involved shootings and when lethal force is justified by police.

That question has yet to be resolved in Ferguson. Here in Pierce County, however, all 36 officer-involved shootings that resulted in death in the last 10 years were found to be justified by independent reviews, according to a report Sunday by The News Tribune’s Sean Robinson and Adam Lynn.

That seems like a lopsided result; surely a few of the incidents might have been resolved a step short of death. But there’s a difference between a justified shooting and a totally necessary one, and state law sets a high bar for a shooting to be ruled unjustified.

The officer only must have probable cause to believe that the suspect “poses a threat of serious physical harm” to the officer or others. It would be hard to prove a negative. And to be found criminally culpable, the officer also must have acted with malice – again, hard to prove.

But that doesn’t mean the officers involved in those 36 shootings were wrong to take the action they did. Critics often argue that police should try less lethal methods to subdue suspects before resorting to deadly force. In fact, officers are often able to defuse tense, potentially deadly situations, but those don’t tend to be the cases the public hears about or remembers.

It’s hard to second-guess an officer responding to a 911 call about “a man with a gun.” Few of us have ever been in that kind of situation. In fact, an officer-involved shooting in 2009 also resulted in the death of the officer, Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Kent Mundell.

The fact that only one of the 36 shootings resulted in civil action – it was unsuccessful – strongly supports that they were defensible.

The number of deadly force shootings in Pierce County must be placed in the context of the sheer volume of interactions local police have with the public: more than 100,000 arrests during that time period. Sunday’s report revealed that most shootings involved the suspect’s use of drugs and/or alcohol. Only three of the 36 were found to be unarmed; the others either had a gun or some other kind of weapon or were using their vehicle in a threatening way.

Reading the descriptions of events surrounding the shootings, it seems as if some of those shot were committing “suicide by cop” – deliberately acting in a way that would compel the responding officers to use deadly force. It’s tempting to speculate that the state’s failure to provide adequate mental health services might have played a role.

As for the racial factor, most of those who were killed were white (27) while four were black – 11 percent of the total. That’s higher than the black percentage of the population in Pierce County (7 percent), but not outrageously so. In any case, it’s hard to extrapolate trends from such a small sample as 36 shootings over 10 years.

Overall, Sunday’s report should make residents feel confident that their local law enforcement agencies are using deadly force in a measured manner. Taking a life is never the best way to resolve a situation; unfortunately it’s occasionally the only way.