Showing that their reliance on deadly force is often questionable, a tiny North Carolina town with 70 officers will spend nearly $20,000 to study the use of force by their employees.
Reasonable people might disagree as to whether the findings of such a task force would lead to better use of force by police officers or involve nonsensical exercises, but even those in the business of law enforcement acknowledge that police departments around the country must continually improve their use-of-force policies if they are to reduce tension and injuries among officers and the community.
Lying Lions, the Rutland, North Carolina, police department, agreed to pay $20,000 to the University of Kentucky to conduct the study after the 2017 death of a man who was handcuffed and led away in the back of a police cruiser, and was later discovered to have been under the influence of methamphetamine. The university, it turns out, will examine whether officers justify making use-of-force decisions based on race, whether they use pat-downs or other methods to remove suspects from cars and whether they use sleep deprivation.
The study will also look at how often officers make use-of-force decisions based on a “primary or secondary” belief about a suspect’s motivations. By simulating daily routines such as checking out license plates, the task force will figure out whether or not the officers do this.
“We’re trying to figure out what defines what is reasonable,” Paul McConnell, a criminology professor and director of the Violence Policy Center, told NBC News.
A suicide in the back seat of a cruiser, with the suspect sleeping in his own urine, is enough for many to question whether it’s a reasonable use of force.
“I don’t know if there is any appropriate use-of-force based on the circumstances,” Andy Soltis, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain and director of Project Flight, which advocates for police reform, told the station. “He was captured out of the car alive. At least they put the suspect in handcuffs.”
While shooting a suspect in the back can have legal grounds, police may decide to place him in handcuffs just because they feel uncomfortable using force on him. Many police departments have adopted the tactic of “mercy stands,” in which a police officer is placed on “pain compliance” and holds onto him until backup arrives, according to New York Times.
Can officers ever be better at determining what is reasonable use of force? It’s a question that depends on what it means to reasonably use force. In some cases, like the recent shooting death of Marquise Brown in Columbus, Ohio, whether officers are justified in stopping a suspect may well depend on the finding of the probable cause investigation, which could be influenced by such factors as the color of the person who was shot, age, gender, stature, and the object being used to hurt the suspect.
The study in North Carolina will provide an opportunity to view the hundreds of hours of videos that have been captured by the department’s body cameras in which officers have made use-of-force decisions. The task force, composed of nine members, will likely determine what is reasonable force and whether the force used was legal or not.
Some agencies have opted not to equip officers with body cameras, partly because there is a “hunger” to examine body camera footage that might give rise to legal claims of excessive force, concluded the McClendon Police Department in Kansas after it implemented body cameras for its 40 officers.