Friday, November 28, 2008


More on police and the use of force

I’ve gone on in these pages before about abuse of force by police, especially unnecessary Taser use and excessive use of firepower. Here’s a recent event in New York City that turns some of this on its head:

At first glance, the standoff that led to the death of Gilberto Blanco in a Coney Island parking lot on Thursday appeared mismatched. He had a chair. A police officer had a gun. During a confrontation, the officer fatally shot him.

In a preliminary review on Friday, the Police Department found that the actions of the officer, Dawn Ortiz, 33, “appeared to be within departmental guidelines” when she fired at Mr. Blanco as he came at her, swinging a chair.

“Basically, was there an imminent threat to life or serious injury?” said Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman. “That is the defining statement.”

Mr. Blanco’s death highlights the murky terrain between two extremes in fatal shootings involving the police. It is a middle ground where the cases can be less clear-cut than when an officer exchanges fires with a gunman and kills him, or when an officer shoots and kills someone who has no weapon.

“When a guy with nothing more than a chair in his hands ends up dead, that raises lots of questions about the propriety of a police shooting,” said Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “When a guy like that ends up dead, you definitely have to ask yourself, ‘How can that be?’ ”

“Murky” is certainly a good way to describe this situation. On the one hand, Mr Blanco did not have what one would normally think of as a deadly weapon. On the other hand, a strong man waving a wooden chair at one’s head is clearly a grave threat. Should the officers have retreated? Maybe, but that also undermines their authority; when is it appropriate for them to back off, and when is it necessary for them to hold their ground? When do they have to defend themselves actively, even to the point of killing someone?

As I see it, this is an ideal situation for a Taser. The officers were responding to an imminent threat to themselves, and I think they should not have backed off in this case. I’d like to think that it wasn’t necessary to kill Mr Blanco — that perhaps shooting him in the arm or the lower leg would have been enough — but I know that officers are trained to make their shots count, when they have to shoot, and that the primary concern at that point is to stop the attacker.

I worry about arming the New York City police force (or any police force) with Tasers, for reasons I’ve posted here before: the history of Taser abuse is clear, and I’m not convinced that training and procedural controls will stop it. And yet I would very much like to see the officers have an alternative in cases like this.

I don’t know how to reconcile those two statements.

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