Shooting Sparks Renewed Debate on Use of Force

The fatal shooting earlier this week of a knife-wielding suspect by New Orleans police has renewed debate over when it is appropriate or necessary to subdue suspects with lethal force. Farai Chideya speaks with Laura Sullivan.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya.

A man with a knife, 18 officers, nine shots and one death. This week, television stations have repeatedly run video of a deadly police shooting in New Orleans. The police arrived after resident Anthony Hayes allegedly punched a drugstore employee. Hayes brandished a knife and officers shot and killed him.

The shooting cast more attention on a department with a history of police violence, including a recent beating in the French Quarter recorded on video. It also raises questions about when and whether deadly force is justified and why New Orleans patrol officers don't routinely carry non-lethal tools like beanbag or stun guns. NPR's Laura Sullivan has covered these issues, and she joins me from Washington.

Hello, Laura.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Hi.

CHIDEYA: So how do police departments determine the use of deadly force, and when is its use most common?

SULLIVAN: Well, police can use deadly force in, really, two situations. They can always use deadly force if their own life is in danger, and they can sometimes use deadly force if they are trying to arrest a suspect who is dangerous or who is actively resisting arrest. In the first case, it's usually pretty clear-cut; the second case is where you get a lot of gray area. And the whole issue really just comes down to the Fourth Amendment and the Supreme Court, and they have consistently upheld the police's ability to use deadly force as long as that force is reasonable. And that's where the dispute usually comes into play.

CHIDEYA: So is there a national standard other than what you just mentioned is a legal precedent? What's allowed by law, and is it uniform from department to department?

SULLIVAN: It is uniform across the country. You know, you can't just, you know, shoot somebody who's running away from you, you can't shoot somebody who is unarmed unless they present a danger to the police officer. But the courts have said that police officers in their snap judgment are allowed to take into consideration the aggressive history of the suspect and the crime that they are being arrested for.

Most of these incidents happen when people--when officers are trying to arrest people, and the most common type of force that's used is shoving, pushing, that kind of thing. And then it goes up with pepper spray and chemical sprays and then on to using a firearm.

CHIDEYA: A national survey of police restraint policies offered a wide range of perceptions about what works. What can you tell us about that?

SULLIVAN: Well, the most comprehensive study that's been done on this issue was done by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2001. And they, in their own study, found that of all incidents where suspects encounter--or citizens encounter police and there's a use of force or threat of force, in .4 percent of those times, the association determined that there was excessive force used. So excessive force is rare by police officers, but it does happen. And what they also found is that more than half of the arrestees where the excessive force was were under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

CHIDEYA: So the New Orleans shooting took place shortly after another incident captured on videotape involving police beatings of an unarmed man. Does part of the interest in this latest shooting have to do with the reputation of the New Orleans department?

SULLIVAN: Well, until Katrina, New Orleans was really coming back from the brink of what was considered one of the most corrupt police departments in the country. In the 1990s, there were dozens of police officers that were indicted, two of them for murder. Then, you know, there was Katrina, there was 200 officers delinquent from duty, looting caught on tape by the police officers. As far as the public's concerned, it doesn't look good.

But here's the thing, though. From the police perspective, officers are trained to shoot if a suspect doesn't drop the knife and keeps moving at them, and that's what you see in this video. It's called the rule of 21, and they believe that a suspect can close 21 feet between a suspect and the officer, the amount of time that it would take the office to pull out a weapon and shoot the suspect. So in this case, you can see that this man is moving fast backward and closing in that distance.

And there also--you know, there's--officers are at a distinct disadvantage if they try to engage in sort of an armed struggle with a suspect without shooting them. And you can see--because they have all these weapons around their belt that they have to protect. And 10 percent of the time that officers are killed in the line of duty every year, they're killed with their own weapon.

CHIDEYA: So to what extent does the existence of videotape form police and public perceptions of officers' use of deadly force? You just mentioned this rule which certainly I think most people in the public don't know about. And so how do police and public takes on what they see on tape differ?

SULLIVAN: Well, there's no way to know if the use of excessive force is more frequent now than it was, say, 20 years ago. But certainly what is more frequent is the amount of videotape there is of these cases being caught on video and then aired nationally. So the perceptions of what police officers are doing is certainly changing.

And with that, there--from some of the experts that I've spoken to--also a changing perception of the way that police officers are handling some of these situations, because they're thinking, `Is there somebody out in this crowd of people that's videotaping this incident?' And that can actually--will probably have a positive effect.

CHIDEYA: Laura Sullivan covers police and corrections for NPR.

Thanks, Laura.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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