The 1985 ruling Tennessee v. Garner established the federal standard that police officers may use deadly force if they believe that a suspect “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Yet, fear of a threat is a subjective state, as SFI External Professor Rajiv Sethi (Barnard College, Columbia University) and his co-author, Brendan O’Flaherty (Columbia University), point out in their latest op-ed in The Bridge. What is more, in trials, jurors tend not to challenge officers’ claims about fear in the face of threats. Even though jurors show increasing willingness to prosecute officers in cases involving illegal deadly force, the challenge of assessing officers’ judgments about threats means that we are unlikely to see a change in policing that stems from the rising threat of prosecution. What is the way forward in the domain of police reform?

Sethi and O’Flaherty argue that successful reform begins when we grasp the complex systems that underly current departments. Drawing on the work of criminologist Lawrence Sherman, they point out that death rates decline more substantially when policymakers re-engineer social and technical systems than when they focus on the certainty and speed of punitive measures.

What do systemic reforms look like? For Sethi and O’Flaherty, successful reforms shift our focus. They do not dwell solely on the rules surrounding the use of force in the moment; they look more broadly at the ways police can “prevent interactions from evolving in a manner that results in a dangerous situation.” 

In short, hopeful reformers would do well to take a longer view — so police are trained better to deescalate situations before they lead to the question of lethal force.

Read the article in The Bridge (December 17, 2020)