To shoot and protect

When a police officer takes a life, we are all responsible. We have handed the officers the authority to enforce the law and allowed them to carry a gun and a badge with which to do it. Their authority comes from us, the citizens. Yet when an officer shoots someone, citizens in this area have very little authority to question the officer’s motives or tactics.

Following a law-enforcement shooting, the cards are stacked in the officer’s favor. Fellow cops gather the evidence and conduct the interviews. As you can imagine, there is no upside in aggressively investigating fellow officers. After all, it may be the investigator next time.

The person reviewing the evidence is the district attorney in the area. The prosecutors must work with officers on a daily basis in order to build cases, and prosecutors need cops’ cooperation on witness stands. Would the prosecutors like to make enemies of the officers? Of course not. Beyond that, district attorneys are political animals who usually want to put out a tough-on-crime posture, and going after officers doesn’t help around election time.

Additionally, a California law says that if an officer is afraid someone poses a threat to him or others, it’s OK to go ahead and pull the trigger. All of the negative circumstances surrounding the shooting incident fall away, and it boils down to what the officers say they were feeling at the time. Who can argue with that? Officers and prosecutors are well aware of this law.

The question is this: Would a reasonable, well-trained and supervised officer take a life based on a fear that wasn’t justifiable? We examine that issue and others surrounding an officer-involved shooting in our cover story, “Is this a lethal weapon?”