When the George Floyd homicide and subsequent civil unrest began earlier this year, police violence and its social implications were already on my mind. The 11th anniversary of my own experience using deadly force as a police officer was quickly approaching, and I tend to think about the subject a lot that time of year. In addition, I’d just spent the past several months individually reviewing accounts of more than 1,700 police-related deaths for my research as a Ph.D. student.
Since the national civil unrest began, I’ve followed events closely and become increasingly concerned by what appears to be a gap in perceptions of police violence. In my experience, after observing video of the same incident, those with close ties to policing may describe an officer’s behavior as reasonable, while those without connections to law enforcement often view the same conduct as police brutality.
This gap in perceptions does not appear to be limited to individuals completely disconnected from the realities of violence. Many of my fellow military veterans have observed these same incidents and expressed concern that police officers appear to be using excessive levels of force. Several tell me that the rules of engagement they operated under during combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to be more restrictive than those imposed on US police departments.
Policing scholars have long recognized that what is considered a reasonable police action by law enforcement officers may be viewed as unreasonable by other segments of society. One theory is that this gap in perceptions is related to the different standards police officers and those outside of law enforcement use to evaluate such incidents. While those not affiliated with law enforcement tend to assess police conduct based on their individual experiences and worldview, law enforcement officers are taught that police use of force should be evaluated using the “reasonable officer” standard set forth by the US Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor.
According to Graham, whenever the police use any form of coercion to restrict individual freedom of movement, from detaining someone in handcuffs to shooting them with a firearm, it’s to be considered a form of seizure by the state. As a result, all forms of use of force must, according to the court, be evaluated utilizing the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right “to be secure in their persons […] against unreasonable seizures.”
The Graham decision stated that every incident should be judged on a case-by-case basis and “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” When determining if police use of force is constitutional, the court contended that “the question is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them” at the moment force was used. The court argued that the “calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
This standard set forth in Graham provides a great deal of deference to police officers. Those attempting to establish that a use of force by law enforcement was unreasonable must not only avoid the use of 20/20 hindsight and take into account the “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” nature of police work; they must also consider the tools, training, and abilities possessed by a “reasonable officer on the scene.” Unfortunately, the court provides very little guidance in defining what a “reasonable officer” is. Instead, those passing judgment are supposed to develop an image of this composite officer based on the evidence presented to them regarding the state of policing when the decision to use force was made. Jurors, for example, must rely on instructions provided by a judge as well as evidence presented by both the defense and prosecutors regarding the training, culture, and capabilities of police officers.
This contributes significantly to this gap in perceptions between those affiliated with law enforcement and those not connected with the institution. Put simply, these instructions are necessary because when compared with those who work in policing, many of those outside of law enforcement are predisposed to believe police officers in the US are far better trained and equipped to manage conflict than they actually are.
For example, consider the June 12, 2020, killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police. While many of my civilian and veteran friends found the decision to shoot Mr. Brooks completely unreasonable, sadly, I wasn’t surprised when the officer pulled the trigger. Based on my own experiences as a police officer, as a police trainer, and subsequent research I’ve conducted examining police training and culture, I expect police officers to make poor decisions when functioning in high-stress encounters such as the one in Atlanta.
There is a significant body of research suggesting that when individuals function under extreme stress they may encounter distortions in the way they process tactile, auditory, and visual inputs, as well as in the way they experience the passage of time. We know that the impacts of these distortions can be mitigated through ongoing training and stress inoculation — we are aware that more and better training can improve an officer’s ability to make informed decisions under stress.
Despite this knowledge, most US police officers are not provided nearly enough training, the right kind of training, nor adequate ongoing opportunities to reinforce their skills under controlled exposure to stress. According to The Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, 37 states currently allow police officers to learn on the job and begin working the street with no training at all. Furthermore, while police officers in countries such as Canada receive more than 2,000 hours of training and police in Norway receive approximately 4,500 hours, police in the US typically receive a little more than 600 hours of training — less training than is required to cut people’s hair in many states. Given this lack of investment, we should not expect police officers to make quality decisions under stress; after all, we have knowingly set them up to fail.
Had Rayshard Brooks been killed before the George Floyd homicide, I doubt the officer would have been charged with homicide, and the incident would have likely drawn little media attention outside of Atlanta. Given the public pressure faced by local officials, however, the prosecutor filed what appear to be politically motivated charges. Charging police officers for doing their jobs the way they were trained is a dangerous way to bring about police reform. If we truly want reform, we should work to change what a “reasonable officer” is in this country. We can accomplish this by reshaping police training and culture, so that in the mind of our composite “reasonable officer,” shooting Mr. Brooks would appear to be an unreasonable course of action.
The officers charged in the Brooks case remind me of the soldiers charged with murder following the Boston Massacre. In 1770, three civilians were killed by British soldiers during what some called a protest and others labeled a riot. Following the deaths, those protesting the Crown demanded the soldiers be charged with murder, and the colony of Massachusetts complied. Future president John Adams defended the soldiers in court and called on the “reasonable man” standard to earn their freedom. Adams argued that those passing judgment must ask themselves what a “reasonable man, in the situation of one of these soldiers” would have done given their understanding of events in that moment — the very same argument presented by the court in Graham.
Adams argued that “rules of law should be universally known, whatever effect they may have on politics.” He argued, as I do today, that individuals should not be held accountable to standards of behavior they were not made aware of before the event took place, nor expected to perform in a particular way unless they are provided the training required to meet that standard. It is unfair to send men and women to complete a job without providing them the necessary tools, then to hold them accountable for not maintaining a standard we have not empowered them to meet. After all, we wouldn’t send soldiers or Marines to combat and expect them to hit a target or react to an ambush if we had not devoted the time and resources required to train them in marksmanship or battle drills.
In an attempt to explore and reduce this gap, an old partner from my time as a police officer and I have been viewing videos of controversial incidents involving the police on a weekly livestream. We play videos that have trended online and attempt to add context to the incidents by providing commentary. Our hopes are twofold: that those unfamiliar with police culture, training, and operations will better understand why officers behave the way they do; and that by providing informed criticism of officer behavior we can encourage improvement in their performance. In addition, I support the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform and other organizations devoted to changing what it means to be a “reasonable officer” in this country. Only after we have empowered police by providing them the skills and resources required to do their jobs effectively can we hold them accountable when they fail to meet our expectations.
Editor’s Note: Thomas Owen Baker is a US Army Ranger veteran, former police officer, Pat Tillman Scholar, and a PhD student who studies police use of force. The opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Coffee or Die Magazine or Black Rifle Coffee Company. To submit an opinion article, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.