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What Is the Number One Duty of a Police Officer?

by Christopher Zoukis

There is an oft-quoted and deeply ingrained sentiment in police circles, one whose logic seems unassailable at first glance: The number one duty of a police officer is to go home to his or her family at the end of the shift.

This feels right. Police operate in a dangerous world of unknowns. They are tasked with intervening in volatile situations. Perhaps more importantly, police officers must often enter a scenario with virtually zero knowledge of the circumstances.

But Dallas News reporter Steve Blow asked a very provocative question: If the number one priority is an officer’s safety, does he or she have carte blanche to shoot first and ask questions later?

In an era of ever-increasing violence at the hands of the police (or perhaps the more accurate explanation is that the frequency of brutality is not increasing, rather it’s being captured on video with increasing frequency), it may be time to seriously question the propriety of this seemingly axiomatic sentiment. Everyone wants police officers to make it home safely at the end of their shift. But the reality is that every law enforcement officer voluntarily chooses to put on the uniform; no one is forcing them. If any officer is unwilling to accept a reasonable degree of personal risk that inherently comes with the job, then he or she has absolutely no business voluntarily choosing law enforcement as a career. Both the officer and especially the public will be far better served if the foregoing individual never puts on the uniform again.

Slate reporter Jamelle Bouie observed, “We ask police to ‘serve and protect’ the broad public, which—at times—means accepting risk when necessary to defuse dangerous situations and protect lives, innocent or otherwise.” In fact, “It’s why we give them weapons and the authority to use them; why we compensate them with decent salaries and generous pensions; why we hold them in high esteem and why we give them wide berth in procedure and practice,” Bouie explained.

We also provide copious training to police officers, and that training may be partly to blame for a growing number of police killings. Our police officers are “among the best-trained in the world,” said law professor and former cop Seth Stoughton in The Atlantic. “[B]ut what they’re trained to do is part of the problem.”

Police officers in training are shown grisly videos of officers being murdered due to momentary hesitation or indecision. They learn that it is better to make a mistake than to hesitate. As Stoughton puts it, “[a] common mistake among cops pretty much sums it up: ‘Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.’”

However, the reality is that it is extremely unlikely that an officer will be killed in the line of duty. Data from the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund show a significant drop in felony killings of police over the last decade. Stoughton concluded that when considering the 63 million interactions that take place between police and civilians each year, officers were assaulted 0.09 percent of the time, injured in some way 0.02 percent of the time, and feloniously killed 0.00008 percent of the time.

Notably, according to national figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fishermen and loggers are 10 times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers. The top 10 deadliest jobs include garbage collector, roofer, and farmer. In fact, police officer is not even on the list.

Of course, there are serious risks associated with policing that cannot be dismissed. Stoughton advocates for a more nuanced approach to police training. Instead of just emphasizing “the severity of the risks,” officers must be taught to understand and take into account “the likelihood of those risks materializing.”

“Officers must also be trained to think beyond the gun-belt,” said Stoughton. “The pepper spray, baton, Taser, and gun that are so easily accessible to officers are meant to be tools of last resort, to be used when non-violent tactics fail or aren’t an option. By changing officer training, agencies could start to shift the culture of policing away from the ‘frontal assault’ mindset and toward an approach that emphasizes preserving the lives that officers are charged with protecting.”

The risk of injury or death to an officer need not go up as a result of the training advocated by Stoughton. Richmond, California has instituted de-escalation training in concert with a policy that favors flexible tactics over use of force. According to Stoughton, Richmond has seen a “substantial decrease” in officer use of force without seeing any increases in officer fatalities.

Every police officer deserves to go home at the end of his or her watch. But an officer “safety at all costs” attitude may actually make officers less safe in the long run and undoubtedly results in members of the general public being less safe. Accepting risk and approaching the work in a less confrontational, more flexible manner will engender greater trust of police in the community, which will in turn lead to a safer environment for police and citizens. 



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