In the post-Ferguson era of policing in the United States, debate over the use of force has been more or less incessant. Whether on Twitter or in the political arena, two camps have had it out constantly; one arguing that overzealous aggression extracts a cost that can be measured in lives, the other that restrictions on police officers make an already hazardous job even less safe. Last Wednesday, the Missouri State Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would align the state’s deadly force regulations with the national standard.
This is a good thing.
Some will inevitably try to cite this development as a blow against police officers. Even a cursory look at the language of the legislation, however, provides an entirely different story. This would be far from an anti-police law. Rather, it is a pro-safety step, and a necessary one.
The bill, MO SB661, dictates that law enforcement officers may only use deadly force on a fleeing suspect if the suspect has committed a violent felony offense or poses a serious threat to the safety of the officer or the community. This may sound like a straightforward, common-sense proposition, but Missouri’s policy has lagged behind the curve for more than three decades.
In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Tennessee v. Garner that a Tennessee statute allowing the use of deadly force against any fleeing felon, whether armed and dangerous or not, was unconstitutional. Indeed, the ruling imposed a standard nearly identical to the one set forth in the Missouri senate last week.
Any attempt to frame this as anything other than bringing woefully out-of-date legislation up to speed is wholly disingenuous. The debate over whether or not police pose a greater danger to unarmed, innocent citizens than violent criminals pose to the police themselves is fraught with strife from both sides and further charged by racial and socioeconomic undertones. That particular argument is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Fortunately, the bill in question addresses a wholly different and much more clear-cut issue.
SB661 is neither a condemnation of policing, nor is it a threat to the safety or efficacy of the brave men and women who choose to serve in the police departments that keep Missouri safe. Instead, it simply establishes that the means of apprehending a thief running from a convenience store after stealing a candy bar and a bottle of soda must be different from the means of dealing with an active shooter fleeing in a residential neighborhood.
Whether or not your feelings about the police are positive, surely we can all agree that due process and fair punishments befitting the nature of crimes are staples of any worthwhile justice system. Any law which allows for the use of deadly force against suspects who have not committed a violent offense or do not pose a direct threat both denies those individuals their right to due process, and cheapens the value of human life. SB661 is a victory for humane treatment, effective policing, and above all else, basic logic.