Eliezer Yudkowsky posted A Comprehensive Reboot of Law Enforcement on Medium.com , please give it a read. It is a fantastic and extensive list of 23 actions that if taken, would position policing well for the 21st century. There are countless people in the streets demanding change, and their demands need to be answered.
Some of Eliezer’s recommendations are pretty obvious. Disconnecting police from profit streams and abolishing blanket qualified immunity are some that seem like no brainers. A few are a little more nuanced but the one I would like to chat about here is #4. It is a zero-tolerance policy for death of unarmed persons in the course of duty. This is saying that regardless of fault a police officer cannot return to duty under any circumstances if they have taken a life for any reason during the course of duty. Even the most justifiable of police homicides would result in someone being removed from duty. Eliezer responded with the statement “So be it”. It is not hard to see how that got blowback.
I immediately tweeted a response to this and saw I was not the only one. While my question was seeking clarity a lot of people responded with the predictable Twitter temperament and went completely off the rails.
Is this such a radical idea? I don’t know what standard practice is following a police shooting but i know it is inconsistent across the country with examples of police have killed and eventually returning to duty. There is also the widespread perception, with plenty of data to back it up, that police are often sheltered from accountability. Rodney King is a prime example of how this perception gained mainstream acceptance and little has been done in the following decades to alter that. People still widely perceive police as being above accountability. The LA riots were set off when a gruesome video was not enough to pierce Qualified Immunity.
The data shows that the police kill roughly 1,000 people per year. There are 800,000 police officers in the country. If we assume that very few of those 1,000 per year killed were killed by the same cop, and that even more rare are cops who have killed multiple people in the line of duty throughout a career, this is not massive turnover. We are not depleting the police force ranks by benching every officer involved in a fatal incident.
Just for clarity I want to unpack that 1,000 number a bit. I don’t have data in front of me as of this writing but there are around 50 to 60 million police contacts per year. That means there are 50 to 60 thousand police contacts per 1 death. As tragic as these incidents are this is not telling of a broken system.
Another way to present this data is that about 6,250 times per hour the police interact with the public, what the Bureau of Justice Statistics measures as a police to public “contact” resulting in less than 3 deaths per day.
Let’s elaborate more on those 1,000 deaths per year. The police are called in response to crimes. We live in the most heavily armed country in the world. Every time a police officer interacts with the public there is at least one armed person. Statistically speaking it is not unlikely the criminal is armed. There are 300,000,000 guns in circulation in the U.S. Police work is dangerous. Police are asked to put themselves in situations that can escalate to kill or be killed in a blink.
How many of the 1,000 deaths were completely justified? This is an important number because these are the ones who are going to be impacted by the “so be it” position. These are the ones who are going to be removed from duty for “doing their job”.
By some estimates 10-29% of these incidents are classified as suicide by cop. Which means up to 300 of the 1,000 people killed by police were intentionally threatening cops with the intent to die. It also must be said that for every suicide by cop incident there are 60 attempts that are successfully de escalated. It has to be acknowledged that the police are doing an amazing job.
That being said, what a profound statement this would make to the public! That the very thought of killing someone, whether justified or not, means you are cycled out. This would go a long way towards diminishing the reputation the police have for avioding accountability.
How many cops are out there that have killed more than one person in the line of duty? How many of them have killed someone and are still psychologically fit for duty? I don’t think I would want to return to a job after having to take a life. What kind of person can just shake that off? This differs from a military example, the public is not supposed to be treated as an enemy combatant. I am curious how many police voluntarily remove themselves from the front line after taking a life?
Having a zero tolerance policy baked into the ethical standard of being an officer of the law is not one I can oppose. It would be an amazing good faith gesture. It will defend the mental health of officers and families impacted. Hopefully it will establish good standing with the public where it is lacking today. It is a step in the right direction. “So be it”