Pick Wayne's Brain

April 25, 2008

The Police Should Not Use Deadly Force For Imaginary Reasons

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Wayne A. Schneider @ 11:06 PM

The acquittal of three New York City police officers in the execution of Sean Bell (he was shot fifty times, with one officer firing thirty-one times) raises some very serious questions for me. In this case, as in many similar previous cases (around the country, not just in New York City), the justification allowed by the police rests entirely on what they imagined was happening, not what actually was happening. Though the details of this case don’t matter, it turns out that the police had reason to believe that someone at the party had a gun. Does that justify mortally firing at someone, repeatedly, even though they did not see any gun? The problem rests on equating two different kinds of beliefs: those you arrive at through deductive reasoning, and those you arrive at through inductive reasoning. One is usually based on actual facts, the other is usually based on one’s imagination. (See explanation here.)

Deductive reasoning starts with the more general and works toward the more specific to reach a conclusion. Inductive reasoning works the other way around. From the website linked above:

Deductive reasoning works from the more general to the more specific. Sometimes this is informally called a “top-down” approach. We might begin with thinking up a theory about our topic of interest. We then narrow that down into more specific hypotheses that we can test. We narrow down even further when we collect observations to address the hypotheses. This ultimately leads us to be able to test the hypotheses with specific data — a confirmation (or not) of our original theories.

Inductive reasoning works the other way, moving from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories. Informally, we sometimes call this a “bottom up” approach (please note that it’s “bottom up” and not “bottoms up” which is the kind of thing the bartender says to customers when he’s trying to close for the night!). In inductive reasoning, we begin with specific observations and measures, begin to detect patterns and regularities, formulate some tentative hypotheses that we can explore, and finally end up developing some general conclusions or theories.

Note: I did not add the “bottoms up” joke.

Another way to look at it is Deductive Reasoning is a form of reasoning by which each conclusion follows from the previous one; an argument is built by conclusions that progress towards a final statement. And Inductive Reasoning is a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is reached based on a pattern present in numerous observations.

So which is happening when a police officer decides that he is justified in using deadly force against a suspect. (And note that I say the word “suspect”, not “criminal”. Furthermore, in all of these hypothetical cases, I am talking about a situation where a police officer responds to a call and sees whatever it is he sees. We’re not talking about tracking down known, escaped convicts. We’re talking about police officers encountering people they’ve never met before and killing them.) If his reasoning is Deductive, then he has observed an actual danger; but if his reasoning is Inductive, then he is extrapolating the danger from visual clues similar to situations in which the police officer turned out to be in danger. In one case, there is a real danger that actually exists. In the other, the police officer has imagined that he is in danger because it looks like it, not because the danger actually exists.

Yet in both situations, the police officer is permitted to say, “I thought my life was in danger,” and it will be considered a “justifiable homicide”. I do agree that there are times when deadly force is absolutely necessary by police officers, and while I find it distasteful, I do not object when the public safety demands it. But when it is quite clear that the only danger was in the police officer’s mind, then how can the use of deadly force, sometimes overwhelming deadly force, be considered “justifiable”? Are we suggesting that a police officer is allowed to try someone, convict him, sentence him to death, and carry out the execution, all based on what was going on entirely within his own mind? Because that is what has happened when the police gun down an unarmed person, one who might have been reaching for some ID, instead of a gun that never materialized. And what if the crime for which you might be a suspect is not one that carries the death penalty? Are the police supposed to still be allowed to kill you for it?

I talked in a previous post about when deadly force is justified, and I feel it applies to the police as well. Deadly force is justified as long as the threat to life or limb is present. Once the threat to life or limb is eliminated, the justification for deadly force evaporates with it. But the threat must be real, not entirely imaginary, as it was in the case of Sean Bell. He had no gun, and he was not an actual danger to the police. Why then, were they allowed to kill him in cold blood? Because they were afraid? Afraid of something that wasn’t happening? What’s next? Do we allow a cop to say, “He looked like he was thinking of harming me,” and get away with killing someone? Because, I’ve got to tell you, I think that is precisely what happens in cases like this. And once a person is shot dead by the police, he can never give his side of the story. We are left with the word of the person who killed him that it was the dead man’s intent to do harm.

And this is allowed.


  1. Good post, Wayne. I saw this earlier, and simply didn’t know what to do with it — other than be disgusted.

    This reminds me of Michael Moore’s old show “The Awful Truth” (I think), where he was giving black men international orange wallets, since so many of them had been shot to death while being “black men reaching for their wallets.”

    I don’t like the precedent — all you have to do is say you “thought” you were in danger, and OK! put a notch on your belt buckle. Freebie!

    Our society is very sick.

    Comment by Zooey — April 26, 2008 @ 12:41 AM

  2. Our society is very sick.

    Exactly! What does it say about us as a society, if we decide (collectively) that it is acceptable for an officer of the law, charged with keeping the peace and enforcing the law, to repeatedly fire his weapon into an unarmed person, and walk away with impunity simply because he says he “thought” he was in danger? For me, it seems like we’re desperately holding on to reasons why it should be okay for the government to kill someone, just in case there’s someone you don’t like that you would like to have the government kill.

    Comment by Wayne A. Schneider — April 26, 2008 @ 1:12 AM

  3. Who needs the government to kill for us? Remember that guy in Texas who shot the guys robbing his neighbors house? In the back. As they were running away.

    He was on the phone with 911, and they told him not to leave his home, but he actually told them he was going to go shoot them, and he did.

    They were running AWAY. He was not in danger from them at any point. And he was not charged with murder.

    Who needs the government to kill for us?

    Comment by Zooey — April 26, 2008 @ 2:41 AM

  4. You are an idiot.. What exactly do you mean when you say “the details of this case do not matter”? That is exactly why people are outraged about this shooting, because they don’t care about the details. They don’t care that Sean Bell was drunk at a strip club at 4am soliciting prostitutes and involved in fights, just hours before he was supposed to get married.. They don’t care that he was unemployed and had three arrests on his record, two for dealing crack and one for weapon possession. They don’t care that the friends he was with had even longer arrest records than he did. They don’t care that he struck a police officer and a police van with his car after they identified themselves as police (and this was confirmed by witnesses other than the cops). Mr. Bell and his friends were career criminals. Why were they at this strip club in a dangerous area at 4am? The cops were there because they were investigating the strip club for prostitution, drugs, and weapons. I am sure those cops would have rather been home with their families, which is where Mr. Bell should have been. HE WAS A DANGEROUS CRIMINAL!!! If someone is attempting to run you down with your car, your life is in danger!! People are so eager to blame the cops and make Mr. Bell out to be some nice innocent family man.. But I guarantee that if you saw Mr. Bell approaching you on a dark street you would be scared and you would be thankful if there was a police officer around.

    Comment by Rick — April 27, 2008 @ 2:30 PM

  5. Well, Rick, I respectfully disagree. First of all, did the cops know all of that about Mr. Bell and his friends at the time they killed him? I doubt it, so it can not be used as a justification for killing him.

    And my point that the details of this particular case do not matter is a valid one to the point I was trying to make, which is that we should not allow the cops to use an imagined belief that their lives were in danger as an excuse to shoot to kill. They could have shot at the tires, they could have shot at the engine, they could have tried various non-lethal methods to stop him, but they didn’t. Instead, they chose to try him, convict him, sentence him to death, and execute him all based on what was going on in their own minds. That, sir, is not “Justice”, that is cold-blooded murder. And it happens all too often with police shootings – they are given the right to kill you without a trial because they “thought” they were in more danger than they really were.

    If we take away the excuse that an officer “thought he was in danger” as legitimate grounds for “justifiable homicide”, maybe there were be far fewer police shootings of innocent people.

    But thanks for visiting my blog. I’m sure we can have many more raucus discussions in the future.

    Comment by Wayne A. Schneider — April 27, 2008 @ 2:41 PM

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