Criminal Justice

Doctrine protecting officers for split-second decisions is blamed for more police killings

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Many criminologists say a doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court three decades ago is partly to blame for the high number of people killed by police in the United States.

The doctrine holds that judges and juries should not second-guess split-second decisions by police, the New York Times reports. The 1989 case, Graham v. Connor, said the reasonableness of use of force should be judged “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

“The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation,” the Supreme Court said.

About 1,000 people are killed by police each year in the United States, a number that is much higher than in other developed countries.

The New York Times spoke with Lawrence W. Sherman, a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, who said he is convinced the split-second doctrine is “the No. 1 cause” of the high death toll.

“It puts the United States into an extreme exceptionalism in allowing killings that would be prosecuted as murder elsewhere, like the U.K.,” Sherman said.

Focusing on the moment the trigger is pulled can overlook steps an officer could have taken before the confrontation, Rachel Harmon, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, told the New York Times. An officer might have taken steps to defuse a situation, for example.

Others, however, say the high death toll is due to higher gun ownership and a less secure social safety net in the United States. Police have to protect themselves and others, and they should not be judged by “Monday morning quarterbacking,” said Larry James, general counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police, in an interview with the New York Times.

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