Almost everyone following the recent fatal shooting by a law enforcement officer of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Missouri, is focused on the racial dimension of the case, and that is certainly appropriate.

The inequality of justice that blacks, Hispanics (and other racial groups) confront is long-standing and appalling. We as a society congratulate ourselves on progress made, but often fail to see the huge inequalities that remain.

But I would direct your attention to a larger problem: the long-standing and widespread use of deadly force by law enforcement personnel of every type and description – game wardens, state troopers, county and local police departments.

Full- or part-time, we arm these people, but we often don’t train them. Or worse, we train them badly; often little more than weapons training coupled with the axiomatic rule in law enforcement: When/if you draw your weapon, you fire at body mass. This almost always leads to a killing shot.

There is little training with respect to defusing or waiting out a situation; backing off; calling for assistance or crisis-intervention teams; recognizing drug, alcohol or mental disabilities that prevent a person who is acting out from understanding police commands; using less-than-deadly force (mace, Tasers, batons); keeping a safe distance, and understanding the rules of any pursuit.

The recent Cleveland episode is a classic. Two seconds after arriving on the scene, (poorly trained) officers shoot dead a 12-year-old boy who was “armed” with a toy gun.

Even in Maine – population 1.3 million, few of whom are black or Hispanic – year after year far too many people are killed by (often poorly trained) law enforcement personnel. The circumstances of their deaths often boggle the mind as fully as the events in Cleveland and Ferguson boggle the mind.

But in the history of Maine, no law enforcement officer has ever been charged with a crime growing out of his/her use of deadly force – none, not one. Every one of these deaths was deemed to be justified by a rhetoric I could repeat in my sleep:

“These men and women put their lives on the line every day; they often must make split-second decisions; the deceased individual did not follow the officers commands; the officer believed that his/her life, or the life of some member of the public was at risk; he/she fired as they were trained to do.”

But how do we know what they believed? Can we read their minds? Answer: We don’t really know; no one can read minds. We only know (and we accept) what the officer said. Case closed.

We never ask the critical questions that in my view need to be asked: Was a split-second decision needed in the particular case? It was not in Cleveland or Ferguson, nor was it in most Maine cases.

Could the officer have avoided the deadly force confrontation? Called for back-up, created some separation between themselves and the individual acting out, used some form of non-lethal force, etc.? In Cleveland, Ferguson and most Maine situations, any/all of these options were available.

How plausible, immediate or real is the claimed threat to the life of the officer or a member of the public? A person with a knife or blunt instrument does not seem to pose a threat. Again, the officer can move away, call for assistance, take the time to ascertain the state of mind of the individual – whether he/she understands the officers commands, whether he/she in fact possesses a weapon – all before the officer draws his/her weapon and a probable deadly force sequence is begun.

Was simply immobilizing or isolating the person acting out possible? It seemed possible in Cleveland, Ferguson and in most of the Maine cases.

In short, the fact that law enforcement personnel put their lives on the line every day – that sometimes split-second decisions must be made, that the person acting out did not respond to police commands, that officers are trained to shoot for body mass when they draw their weapons – does not in and of itself justify the use of deadly force.

But sadly, these factors are often applied in rote fashion, and when this happens they become little more than a license to kill. Cleveland, Ferguson and many Maine cases provide the bodies that prove the point.

Sidebar Elements

Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at [email protected]