Christopher Smart: Rethinking the police and use of deadly force

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Floyd and Bernardo Palacios Carbajal, two men killed by police, are displayed on a mural in Salt Lake City at 800 South 300 West on Thursday, June 11, 2020.

A Salt Lake City Police body-cam video shows Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal running from officers when shots ring out and he crumples to the ground.

The May 23 video is disturbing because it captures the end of the 22-year-old man's life. The officers had responded to a call of a man with a gun. When confronted, Palacious-Carbajal did not comply with their commands and fled. Some have wondered if it is necessary for police to use deadly force in cases like this.

The shooting remains under investigation by the Salt Lake County District Attorney.

In the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many cities are reexamining police policies and procedures. As they do, they would be wise to look outside the country to western Europe, where deadly force is rarely used and police are required to have five to six times more training than cadets in the U.S.

According to a compilation of statistics by Huffington Post, police in this country shoot and kill 3.42 people per million (about 1,000 per year). In stark contrast, French police shoot and kill 0.17 people per million per year, German police shoot and kill 0.09 per million and in Great Britain, its 0.016 per million.

That's means police in this country use lethal force 30 to 300 times more often than western European countries. In this category, the U.S. is on a par with Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There are a number of readily identifiable reasons why this occurs. At the top of the list is training. In this country, police cadets get anywhere from 16 to 21 weeks of training. In Germany, for example, cadets are required to take 130 weeks of instruction. Scandinavian countries also require two to three years of training. In addition, they require an advanced degree that benefits their service.

Beyond the depth of instruction, those countries have at least one significant difference from police training in the U.S. — the western European emphasis to not shoot.

The Christian Science Monitor recently interviewed Col. Uwe Thieme, the senior police director in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia district: “In every head of every policemen there is the aim not to shoot,” he said. “We try to make all police officers recognize that you are a good guy only if you are not shooting.”

In Britain, beat police, called Bobbies, don’t carry firearms at all but rely on batons. Their belief is that police with guns serve only to escalate interactions with the public. If need be, they can call armed backup. Between 2003 and 2013, British police fired weapons only 51 times, according to the Christian Science Monitor’s analysis.

Amnesty International USA has been pressing Congress for legislation that would bring this country in line with international standards for use of lethal force, said spokesman Justin Mazzola.

In the U.S., the standard varies from state to state, but generally allows deadly force when officers believe their lives or the lives of others are in danger, he said. That gives them a good deal of latitude.

The international standard, in contrast, requires police to protect the right to life of every suspect, along with freedom from discrimination and equal protection under the law, Mazzola said. Lethal force is a last resort to protect against imminent death or serious injury, which means police don't shoot fleeing suspects.

American law enforcement officers do face a challenge not seen in western Europe — the very real chance that a suspect could be armed. There are more than 300 million firearms in this country. On almost every call, cops must assume they could be shot. On average, 55 officers are shot and killed each year in the U.S. That necessitates split-second decisions that can result in unarmed suspects being shot and killed. We have seen several of those tragedies in Salt Lake City and surrounding area in recent years.

Traditionally, this country has focused inward. But there are valuable lessons to be learned from law enforcement elsewhere and we would be wise to recognize it.

Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart is a freelance journalist in Salt Lake City and author of Smart Bomb, which appears in City Weekly.