FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Stories of deadly force often raise the question: Do you have to kill someone to keep them from being a threat? For more, I spoke with David Klinger. He's an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He's also author of the book, "Into the Kill Zone: A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force." He was a Los Angeles police officer, joined the force in '81. In his first year, he killed a suspect to save his partner's life. David told me why he pulled the trigger.
Professor DAVID KLINGER (Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri-St. Louis; Author, "Into the Kill Zone: A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force"): The bottom line is that my partner was laying on his back. The suspect had already stabbed him once and tried to stab him several more times and was about to drive a butcher's knife through is throat.
And so, what I was thinking was, is there any way that I can avoid having to shoot this guy? I made a decision that I didn't have any option, and so I pulled the trigger. And I didn't want to do it and I was actually quite scared that the district attorney in Los Angeles was going to take some action against me. But my partner - his life was the vital issue there. And unfortunately, I had to kill somebody to save his life.
CHIDEYA: What do you think about these kinds of judgment calls? Did you feel equipped to your training to make that kind of judgment call when you had to make it?
Prof. KLINGER: I think so, and I think so because there is really no way that you can be fully equipped because there is no particular template that anyone can say this is what's going to happen to you one day and therefore you need to do this. The best that law enforcement can do is say, here's the parameters of when you're permitted to use deadly force. And we can give you example after example after example of situations where our officers use deadly force or use deadly force inappropriately, but you will not encounter the exact same circumstance.
And so, consequently, all that anyone can do in terms of preparing officers is telling them what the law is, telling what the constitutional standards are, telling them what department policy is, and then put them through appropriate training where they have to make decisions under pressure and shoot/don't shoot situations. And, there's really nothing more you can do than that.
CHIDEYA: Based on what we know about the shootings, the bullets fired at the 18-year-old who was killed in Brooklyn…
Prof. KLINGER: Right.
CHIDEYA: …the volume of firing that occurred by different officers, do you think the NYPD made the right move?
Prof. KLINGER: Well, it's difficult to say at this early juncture in terms of where were the officers positioned. My understanding is that a total of five officers fired 20 rounds, and so that would be four apiece. Or, it might be that one officer fired a number, you know, large number of rounds and the other four officers just fired, you know, one or perhaps two. It's difficult to say at this early juncture whether any particular officer's decision was correct. And that's an important point for people to remember is that each individual officer is going to be held accountable for his or her conduct regarding pulling the trigger.
CHIDEYA: What about what is sometimes called suicide-by-cop…
Prof. KLINGER: Right.
CHIDEYA: …when an individual taunts officers or asks for them to shoot him - in this case, there was some indication that the young man who was shot and killed asks officers to shoot him - how can officers deal with a situation like that where the person in question may not be making rational judgments or may, in fact, at the moment, seem to want to be harmed?
Prof. KLINGER: Unfortunately, sometimes police officers have no options. Sometimes, in suicidal situations dealing with suicidal suspects, police officers can slow things down, get the appropriate negotiators there, get an appropriate negotiation's protocol set up, have less-lethal munitions, use them to try to knock the person down. This is provided that they don't have a firearm, by the way.
Police officers cannot be expected to use less-lethal weapon where he gets an individual who is presenting a firearm or who they believe is presenting a firearm, because that puts them at a disadvantage to the point where they may have to forfeit their life to try to save the life of the individual who's going through this mental health crisis. And nobody can reasonably expect the police to do that.
However, if the police can slow things down, if they can get appropriate assets on site, they might be able to talk the person down or use some other tactic. And, in fact, oftentimes, that's the case.
Another thing people have to understand is, unfortunately, sometimes people who are suicidal will actually commit homicide or attempt to commit homicide in order to get the police to shoot them. There have been cases around the country where people have tried to get police to shoot them. The police haven't shot. And then what they end up doing is they actually shoot somebody and figure, well, if I start shooting people, then the police are going to have to shoot me. And so suicide-by-cop, you know, is a very real phenomenon and is a very tough one for the police to deal with.
And another thing that's tough for police to deal with when it comes to suicidal individuals, is police officers don't sign up to shoot people who are emotionally disturbed. They sign up to protect the society. And they believe if they're going to use deadly force, it's going to be against the bad guy - a bank robber, a murderer, something like that. And when they shoot somebody who is mentally disturbed, this is something that is very, very difficult in officers.
And you mentioned my book at the outset, there are several stories in there of police officers shooting suicidal individuals, and it took quite a toll on them.
CHIDEYA: Is race a factor when it comes to the shootings, either in terms of misunderstandings between the officers and the person who they're confronting or any number of factors just race play into it?
Prof. KLINGER: It is possible than in given shootings that race may be a factor. But when we look around the country, that the vast, vast majority of police shootings that do go down, race doesn't appear to be a determining factor.
One of the points of evidence for this is that when you put black police officers in high-crime areas that unfortunately tend to also have high numbers of minorities in the population, they are no less likely to shoot than our white officers getting the sorts of assignments that police officers have to work, which suggests quite strongly then that it is the circumstances that officers face rather than their race that is determining factor about deciding to pull the trigger in any given circumstance.
CHIDEYA: Knowing what you do now about the big picture, if you were able to go back in time to that moment where you were confronted with a suspect stabbing your partner, would you do anything differently?
Prof. KLINGER: The only thing I would do quite honestly is I would have shot him sooner. I tried to take the knife away. I wasn't able to take the knife away, and during that time, believe it or not, he actually stabbed me on my duty belt or actually on an ammo pouch I had on my duty belt. And so, you know, I gave him a chance, I tried to take the knife away and he repaid me by trying to murder me. And if I would have shot him sooner, that never would have happened and it would have ended the situation sooner, and I would have protected my partner, his name was Dennis(ph) - I would have protected Dennis' life a little bit sooner.
CHIDEYA: David Klinger, thank you so much.
Prof. KLINGER: Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: David A. Klinger is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He's also author of the book "Into the Kill Zone: A Cops Eye View of Deadly Force."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.