Officer Involved Shootings: Tragic Even When Justified

Police shootings are always tragic, for those who are killed or wounded, for their loved ones and friends, and also for the cops.

(The author is a retired Long Beach Police Sergeant and current Long Beach resident. His comments reflect his personal views only. They do not represent the official positions of either the City of Long Beach or the Long Beach Police Department, nor are they intended to.) 

As recently reported , , and ; on Tuesday, September 11, an on-duty Long Beach police officer shot and killed a young adult suspect who, police claim, had attacked officers three times with two different knives. Those interested in the official (and still preliminary) police account of the incident can read the LBPD Press Release here.

As is always the case with officer involved shootings (OIS), public accusations and outrage follow almost immediately. This is to be expected for the most part, particularly from some in the community who have little faith and even less trust in their police department.

The public comments here at The Patch and in other local interactive media have run the gamut from (paraphrasing): "The suspect wanted the police to kill him and he got what he wanted" to "The police murdered a harmless person suffering from a severe mental disorder" and pretty much all points on the spectrum in between.

OIS are tragic, in all cases and under all circumstances. Whenever a police officer believes he or she must resort to deadly force during the performance of his or her duties, the outcome is never a completely positive or beneficial one.

Even if we managed to conjure up a scenario in which the vast majority of people would agree* that an officer had no choice but to shoot and, as a result, kill a suspect, this would still be considered a tragedy for many reasons. A life has still been taken. Virtually every such suspect leaves behind people who care about him or her. These people are grieving deeply, and we should honor and respect their grief. Meanwhile the officer and his or her loved ones are always left to deal with the emotional, psychological, administrative, and legal aftermath of that officer's actions.

As tragedies go, OIS are pretty much all-encompassing. Whether we consider events and circumstances, preceding, during, or lingering long afterward.

Many people embark, early in their lives, on the tragic path that eventually leads them to a deadly encounter with a police officer. Many of these are career criminals, many are also long time sufferers of mental illness, emotional disturbance, or both.

As these tragic encounters unfold, so many decisions are made and actions taken (by all participants) that -considered in isolation- can often seem non-threatening or even entirely innocuous. When they co-mingle and begin acting upon, and reacting with, one another, however, all of these circumstances and decisions ultimately combine to result in tragic outcomes: suspects killed and police officers having killed them.

After these deadly encounters, of course, the consequences and effects of these tragedies can linger for many long decades. Thorough investigations sometimes take months, civil and criminal litigation takes years. Even if eventually cleared of any wrong-doing, the officers involved sometimes never fully recover emotionally or psychologically. The families of the deceased never stop mourning their loved ones. Families, friends, and colleagues never stop trying to help the officers get past the experience in some constructive way.

Some officers never return to field duty following an OIS in which they killed a suspect. Some seek, instead, to remain on desk duty if at all possible, trying to minimize the chance that they might ever again have to take someone's life. Some officers can't even remain in service to their communities, leaving their chosen profession rather than continue to take that risk. Some officers struggle with mental and emotional challenges of their own for the remainder of their days.

And a very small percentage of officers, tragically, may later take their own lives, unable to live with the knowledge that they caused the death of another, even when it proved their duty to do so, even when it was eventually deemed justified.

Nor can we properly ignore the hard fact that a very small percentage of OIS are ultimately deemed not justified and that the officer had resorted to deadly force when it was not reasonable, or even lawful, that he or she do so. In these cases the costs throughout the community and the law enforcement profession in general are very great indeed. Readers can learn about one such recent example here

Though rare, whenever an officer resorts to the use of deadly force without just cause, it can serve to undermine the public's faith in -and trust of- not only that particular agency, but the entire law enforcement profession. It bolsters the misperception of some that many if not most police officers in the United States are poorly trained, inadequately supervised, and generally corrupt. This, in turn, can translate to a lessening of community support for the police, without which no law enforcement organization can possibly function effectively.

Officer Involved Shootings are, indeed, always tragic, for everyone both directly and indirectly involved in them.

Still, could at least some OIS actually be preventable? If so, how might we, as a society, try to do more do help prevent them?

What do you think? 


*This can never be entirely unanimous because some folks are philosophically and morally opposed to anyone killing anyone else under any circumstances.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

R. J. Steelworth September 17, 2012 at 03:58 PM
How to prevent? Proper parenting. If you raise your kids properly and set the proper example, in the majority of cases they do not become thugs. There are always some that for unexplainable reasons become sociopaths. I shot three people in my police career.Each of them was armed, in the commission of a violent felony and shot at me first. Tragedy? It depends in whose eyes you are looking through. In these three cases, society is safer without these people among us. That is an absolute fact. Unlike as depicted on TV, most cops that are involved in shootings do not have a psychological breakdown. I dealt with a lot of cops in post shooting situations. 99% were fine. They realized that this could happen as part of the job and were prepared.
Nancy Wride (Editor) September 17, 2012 at 07:26 PM
This was a very thought-provoking piece, and R.J., did any of the officers that you dealt with after they shot someone learn that the person was mentally ill?
John B. Greet September 17, 2012 at 08:56 PM
R.J. thanks for your service, and I'm glad you came away from each of your OIS with no apparent emotional or psychological challenges. Not all other cops fare quite so well after their shootings. I feel very fortunate to have been spared the need to shoot anyone during my own career, although I came quite close several times and the number of times I found myself pointing a loaded firearm at someone, fully ready to shoot, can easily be counted in the several hundreds. You do raise an important point, though: Not all police officers handle the aftermath of their OIS well, but not all handle it poorly either. Some like yourself, apparently, see it as having been just "part of the job" and are able to get past it and remain good, hard working, productive cops.
R. J. Steelworth September 19, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Hi Nancy. I guess it depends on your definition of mentally ill? All of the situations I was involved in or present at (well over a dozen) the criminals they shot were shot were clearly sociopaths. In all the cases I am speaking of, the suspects that had guns and shot at the officers. While working at one agency in the 70's, one of our officers was shot and killed by a shooter that was later ruled insane at the time of the killing. The shooter remains in a secure mental facility. If you are shot and killed, you are just as dead even if the person is mentally ill. Sane or not, I don't think it makes much a difference if that person has a gun and is trying to kill you.I'd argue that no sane person accosts the public while armed then shoots at the police. As a police officer, there are times you have a duty to use deadly force to protect the public. Not saying you have to be a trained killer but if you are not prepared to use deadly force when necessary in defense of yourself and the public, perhaps you chose the wrong profession. Personally, it doesn't matter if a person is sane or mentally ill while trying to kill me. My duty is to protect my self, the public and go home to my family. If the other guy is writing a check he cant cash, it's not my problem. That's my frank assessment.
jennie ruiz November 27, 2012 at 08:13 PM
typical attitude to be expected from law enforcement. The suspect fought the law and the law won. too many cops have the attitude that any and all situations require deadly force. My brother was not a sociopath. yet cops determined that he was a threat, and killed him in cold blood. he was unarmed and drunk. he was suicidal and very depressed. he needed help and got killed instead. he was not trying to hurt anyone. needless to say, we view law enforcement very differently, especially in view of the increase in ois this past year.


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