Editor's note: There are several Duke University and Duke Law students working with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice this semester, including some who are working on a "blog team." Those students are learning about the intersection of the criminal system with communications. As part of a recent assignment, four students wrote op-ed-style articles examining the use of police force in some North Carolina jurisdictions, and researched opportunities for reform. Their work will be published throughout this week.
By: Alexi DeLara, a Duke University undergraduate student
When the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd hit the media earlier this year, citizens broke out into protests. Two more innocent people were killed at the hands of police officers who wrongly employed deadly use of force – one of the victims were shot; one was suffocated. These are just two of many others who also fell victim to deadly use of force. Our society questioned the role of police: why do the people whose duty is to protect us keep killing us? When will justice be served? When will change occur?
The widespread movement demanding racial justice and a change in effective policing policies has forced departments to reevaluate and revise their policies regarding use of force. Greensboro is the third largest city in North Carolina, boasting a police force of 787 personnel. Their outdated policies, effective in 2008, left loopholes for officers to use their own judgment, which has proven in these deaths, and many others, to be misguided at times.
Similar to many other police departments, it has reportedly had issues with use of force policies. Officers often used physical use of force, and in some cases, could engage in force that restricts breathing or blood flow. There was also some ambiguity as to whether officers had to use the minimal amount of force necessary to affect an arrest.
After the death of George Floyd, however, officials made much-needed revisions in the department’s policies. These revisions include prohibiting officers from engaging in any use of force which restricts air flow; requiring state officers to intervene verbally or physically interrupt the act if they witness another officer using excessive use of force, as well as notifying their supervisor; and requiring police officers to self-report use of force. The department is also exploring options to enhance officer access to counseling and require a mental health assessment every five years, rather than only a couple times.
Prior to this revision, officers were only required to report any violation of policy, rather than every incident where use of force was applied. While this is a step in the right direction, there could be problems in officers not reporting their use of force in every instance, or if they do not believe they used excessive force. It also leads one to wonder how accurate of an account self-reports are.
The Greensboro Police Department also updated its policy to explicitly state officers will utilize “the minimal amount of force necessary to stop resistance and affect an arrest.” While this is good in theory, it begs the questions: who determines the necessary use of force in a given situation; what mechanisms are in place to ensure officers will use every minimal route before deciding use of force is necessary?
Looking at Greensboro Police Department’s published use of force policies, there are areas that are strong and areas that could be improved upon – areas that could lead to the similar injustices in Taylor’s, Floyd’s, and other individuals’ cases. The policies state that officers are trained to use a collection of de-escalating tactics before engaging in use of force. This is important as many potential violent confrontations can be avoided with proper training and the use of proper tactics. The document states “officers are justified in using deadly force upon another person when the officer reasonably believes deadly force is necessary.”
The circumstances listed to warrant uses of deadly force include: “to defend the officer, or another person, from what the officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force; to affect the arrest or prevent from custody of, a person whom the officer reasonably believes is attempting to escape by means of a deadly weapon; to affect the arrest, or prevent the escape from a person whom the officer reasonably believes present an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to others.”
While it can be seen in some circumstances why officers would need to use deadly force, what happens in a situation like Taylor’s? This policy leaves it open-ended for officers to use deadly force, potentially even if the wrong person is involved. Although Greensboro police officers receive training every year regarding use of force, much of the decision to use force is left to the individual officers’ judgment of events, and how they interpret the perpetrator’s intentions.
The issue with this policy, in particular, largely stems from the wording, and thus, the principles behind the wording. When it states officers are “justified” to use deadly force when “they reasonably believe” it is necessary, that allows a dereliction of responsibility on behalf of the officer, who might use it as justification for deadly force even when it might not be the case. While what is considered reasonable is a legal standard and requires an objective level of justification, what one officer believes to be reasonable may differ from another. One may misconstrue the individual they are trying to arrest’s intentions and believe their lives are being threatened, which according to the policy would be reasonable to resort to deadly use of force. But if there is a mistake made in identifying the person, for example in the case of Breonna Taylor, then deadly use of force is not warranted and the officers were supposed to use de-escalating tactics and identify themselves rather than shooting. When the civilian is deceased, they cannot testify to the events leading to their death.
While the Greensboro Police Department has made necessary strides to improve their use of force policies, there is still room for growth, including using unambiguous language in the document. Perhaps there are more strict guidelines given to officers in training outlining which circumstances exactly deadly uses of force are justified, but best practice would be to list those on the website for full transparency.