In a previous article titled, “Fear of the Unknown,” I talked about the fact that an officer is allowed to fear for their life. I continue to stand behind this statement as officers are neither expected nor required to perform their duties with ‘tombstone courage’ and blind disregard for their own personal safety.
As law enforcement professionals stand firmly in the gap as the “thin blue line” between lawlessness and the quality of life, there will be several times when potential life-changing decisions will be made. Additionally, there will also be several opportunities for fear to set in, yet officers will continue to fill the gap, sometimes with imminent fear.
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However, there appears to be a new caveat to this. If you look closely you may notice there has been a ‘slow churn’ in the interpretation of case law. In an incident where an officer employs lethal force, the interpretation or opinion is that simply stating, “I feared for my life,” has become less suitable as a defense. Moreover, articulable facts are expected to follow this statement expressing the causation of said fear.
It is not to say that officers can no longer claim to be in fear of their life. They absolutely can, and should, when appropriate. It does suggest, however, there will be an expectation in a lethal force encounter where an officer asserts, “I feared for my life,” they be able to articulate what predicated that fear.
Why wouldn’t we want to articulate that fear? The facts and threats (either real or perceived in those exact moments in time) are all vital information that lead up to the decision to use force. Court of public opinion aside, this information is also critical for an individual department to aid in the defense of their officer if that officer acted lawfully. The days of using this phrase as a universal response or a “get out of jail free card,” (as it has been referred to by others) are all but gone.
The way these details are communicated publicly, following a critical incident, has changed dramatically and in rapid fashion. We largely have social media to thank for the paradigm shift. Looking back at high profile incidents that garnered national attention, you notice a discernable difference in the communication of information from one incident to the next.
Learning from past experiences, departments began to offer non-compromising details in press releases and press conferences that does do not encumber the integrity of the pursuant investigation. Unfortunately, there are some news sources that are more interested in a story than the facts that surround a story. Also, we have seen, even absent of facts, a story will still be told.
What story do you want to represent you? A story of fact or of fiction?
Details are important. As law enforcement professionals, when a critical incident occurs, details are all anyone wants. This is true from the public to police department administrators to the media. Our current culture has bred a sense of entitlement to the access of information.
We have the internet to thank for that!
At the end of the day officers should be expected and able to go out and do their jobs. We know by now they will be second-guessed on some level, and that is okay. As long as we are equipping these professionals with the tools and training to most effectively and efficiently carry out their oaths, this ‘slow churn’ will have a minimal effect. Officers who have a strong working knowledge of the case law that governs their craft and are able to articulate the reasoning and legal authority that supports their work and that work product will remain unaffected. Others risk being whisked away by the ‘slow churn’ of case law!
Sanford Swanson began his career as a law enforcement professional in 2006 and currently serves as a patrol officer for his department where he is employed. Sanford’s professional experiences span areas of patrol, investigations, training/instruction, and supervision. During his tenure, he has found passion in the areas of community policing and training. As a veteran law enforcement instructor of several disciplines, he places an emphasis on officer survival and control tactics/techniques. He travels across the country, as an instructor-trainer, training officers in STOPS officer survival tactics.