A Tragedy in Chicago: The myths and realities of using deadly force

In October 2014  Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times and killed by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. Over a year later, on November 24, 2015, the dash-cam video of the incident was released to the public. We have noticed that there has been some confusion as to the limits of police power and the use of deadly force. We would like to clear up some of the myths that have sprouted after recent shootings involving law enforcement.

Myth: Law enforcement cannot shoot a suspect when the suspect has his/her back turned.

Fact: In the late 1970s a young African American male was unarmed and fleeing from police. One of the officers shot Mr. Garner in the back of the head as he was trying to climb a fence to escape. In Tennessee v. Garner (1985) the U.S. Supreme Court “conclude[ed] that such force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” This means that if a police officer believes a suspect poses a threat to him/herself or others and is trying to escape, the officer may use deadly force. There only needs to be a perceived threat to the officer and whether or not the threat actually exists is not part of the consideration.

Myth: Law enforcement should “shoot to maim.”

Fact: An officer typically will use verbal commands to try to de-escalate the situation. If the former fails then they will utilize “harder” techniques such as mace, Tasers, and batons. At the point that an officer decides to use deadly force the situation has intensified to where either the officers’ or the general public’s safety is at risk. In 1989 the U.S Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor recognized that violent encounters are “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving,” and the Court “does not require officers to use the least intrusive method” of neutralizing a threat, but “only what is reasonable.”

Myth: The amount of shots (16) prove an abuse of power.

Fact: Adrenaline can cause individuals to get tunnel vision and aural occlusions on top of the fact that officers are taught to neutralize the threat. Though an officer emptying his/her magazine seems excessive in hindsight, the circumstances of being involved in a shooting clouds an officers ability to realize how many times they have fired their gun. Oftentimes multiple officers will fire their weapons at the mere sound of another officer’s weapon due to “contagious shooting”. An officer cannot be expected to stop shooting if they perceive a threat still exists.

Myth: Law enforcement need to match force to force.

Fact: Most law enforcement agencies are trained on a use of force continuum. This standard uses a step approach to the use of force, from officer presence to the ultimate step, deadly force. Recently some agencies are moving away from this model to a “force options” model. This gives the officer more flexibility and discretion to choose a force option that is immediately most reasonable, based on the totality of the facts known to him/her about that specific situation.

All the above is to say that officers are not expected to meet, for example, a knife with a baton. This is to protect the officer’s safety and the general public, which they serve.

Myth: The officer involved shooting in the Laquan McDonald case was justified.

Fact: Due to the evidence presented in the dash-cam video, it appears that Officer Van Dyke should not have discharged his weapon in this incident.

We feel that policies surrounding officer involved shooting need to change so that a FOIA request does not need to be submitted to view dash-cam/body-cam evidence. The fact that Brandon Smith had to FOIA the dash-cam evidence, which was then challenged and decided through the court system, prolonged the time it took for the video to be release. The public has a right to know the details of these incidents in order to maintain transparency and trust in the system. Additionally Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez should have pressed charges on Officer Van Dyke earlier. Taking into account that it took a year to make this decision added insult to injury, not only to Laquan’s family, but to the city as a whole.

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