The actions of police officers in the U.S over the past couple of weeks sparked anger in communities such as the African American community in Ferguson, Missouri, and reignited debate over what some describe as heavy-handedness of U.S. police officers. But are police officers in the U.S. heavy-handed and trigger-happy? A quick look at how police elsewhere deal with civilians who pose a threat to the safety of officers or the public answers the question.
In July 2014, New York Police Department officers were involved in the death of a civilian, Eric Garner, when a heavy-handed arrest incident went wrong. In a video of the incident captured by a bystander, the victim can be heard repeatedly saying "I can't breathe" as officers pressed his face into the sidewalk.
Less than a month later a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting death by a white police officer sparked protests and rekindled debate over race in America. According to autopsy reports, unarmed Michael Brown was shot six times. Police claim he posed a threat to the officer.
Ten days later, another African American, Kajieme Powell, was shot dead by police in St. Louis. The police department was quick to release a statement that the victim was armed with a knife and posed a threat to officers.
Even domestic animals are gunned down by police officers in the U.S. Officers once shot a dog in front of its owner. In another incident, an officer shot and killed a dog in someone's backyard.
Is killing the first and only way to neutralize a threat?
Non-lethal law enforcement elsewhere
On 17 August 2014, police in Finland responded to a report of a man "behaving menacingly". The subject was, according to Yle, brandishing a chainsaw. He threatened responding police officers with a chainsaw, an axe and a hunting knife. Before police arrived the man had threatened his neighbors. Police detained the suspect with the help of a police dog after a three-hour standoff. No one was killed.
In another incident that was captured on video and posted on YouTube, Finnish police successfully subdued and arrested a man who posed a threat to officers and the public in a market place.
In Greece, a 42-year-old man who threatened police with a chainsaw was also arrested without the use of lethal force.
After the Woolwich attack that left an off-duty soldier dead in London in a suspected Islamist attack, police did not kill the two men who orchestrated and carried out the barbaric attack -- even though the savage killers reportedly charged at responding officers brandishing knives and a meat cleaver.
Sometimes police action results in death of civilians in Europe too -- as was the case when police shot Mark Duggan in Tottenham in 2011. But police killings in Europe are few and far between, as opposed to the U.S. where killings by police officers seem to be norm.
It is plausible to conclude, drawing from the above cases, that police in the U.S. are heavy-handed, trigger-happy and could learn a lesson or two from police departments in Europe. There are a host of ways in which police officers can deal with people who threaten public safety, and the use of lethal force, which is only one way to respond, should be a last resort. I am convinced that if U.S. officers were to respond to the above cited incidents in Finland, Greece and London, the fate of the subjects would have been different.
It is true that police officers face deadly threats on a daily basis. However they should not be given license to kill on the basis of threats and erratic behavior by members of the public, some of whom could be mentally unstable. The threshold for using deadly force should be high -- both on paper and in practice. Officers should only use lethal force when the use of less-than-lethal equipment, including batons, pepper spray, tasers or rubber bullets fail to contain a suspect. And the amount of force used should be proportional to the threat posed.
Rather than spend public funds on military-style weapons, police departments in the U.S. should invest in studying how police officers in other countries deal with threats to officers and public safety without resorting to killing as a first resort.
My take on police heavy-handedness should not be misconstrued as "anti-police" behavior. Perhaps it is worthy to mention here that my father was a decorated police commissioner in Cameroon, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for law enforcement officers. I'm concerned by police departments and officers losing public confidence.
Image source: The Guardian
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