The Legal Protection Of Armed And Deadly Assault By The Police

There are, supposedly, many legal protections to guard a citizen’s interaction with law-enforcement agencies and their officers: you may not be detained without cause (‘Am I under arrest?’ ‘Am I?’ ‘If I’m not, may I go?’); you and your personal spaces and possessions may not be searched without cause (‘Do you have a warrant?’); you may not be coerced into making confessions or incriminatory statements (‘I’m not talking.’); you have the right to an attorney (‘I want to see a lawyer’); heck, you even have the right not to be assaulted or shot dead during the course of an interaction with a police officer.

So say the books. Courts sing a slightly different tune. There, all manner of exceptions may be found: law enforcement officers may detain, search, and question you in ways deviating from the prescribed code and conduct of behavior if they were ‘acting in good faith’; they may suspend their reading of your rights if they were acting under similar motivations and had reason to suspect some law-enforcement imperative could be compromised otherwise; and of course, in the course of performing their duties and protecting their own lives, they may use deadly force in interactions with citizens in many different ways.

The Fourth Amendment’s protections of US citizens are effectively eviscerated by the legal standards used to evaluate police behavior in seizure, search, and armed response scenarios:

The Fourth Amendment inquiry focuses not on what the most prudent course of action may have been or whether there were other alternatives available, but whether the seizure (in this case, the shooting) was objectively reasonable to someone standing in the officer’s shoes—and it was.

Excerpt from Smith v. Freland
“Under Graham, we must avoid substituting our personal notions of proper police procedure for the instantaneous decision of the officer at the scene. We must never allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day. What constitutes ‘reasonable’ action may seem quite different to someone facing a possible assailant than to someone analyzing the question at leisure.”
—excerpted from Smith v. Freland, 954 F2d 343, 347 (6th Cir. 1992)

And so, it must come to pass. Police officers can shoot and kill a twelve-year old boy playing with a toy gun in a children’s playground, two seconds after their arrival, because in their judgement of what constituted ‘reasonable action,’ it was reasonable to shoot and kill such a boy. Such a standard has been in place with us ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor ruling that “cops can shoot you dead as long as their sense of self-preservation is “reasonable” in the face of your perceived dangerousness.”

The gap such rulings and interpretations have opened have resulted in a chasm, a gaping maw into which we feed, without ceasing, the bodies of innocent citizens–mostly black and brown men–year and year. The feverish fears of policemen are the only regulators of their trigger fingers.

A policeman feels unsafe; he fires. His safety has been addressed; what about ours?

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