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Badge, gun, accountability

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 6, 2010 at 7:36 pm with No Comments »
April 6, 2010 5:38 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It doesn’t happen often, but police are sometimes too quick to pull the trigger. Every use of lethal force demands hard scrutiny.

The scrutiny usually brings reassurance, as it has with the spike of suspect-shootings since five officers were gunned down in Pierce County late last year.

Candidates for law enforcement go through serious psychological screening and extensive training before they are entrusted with a badge and gun, which is a very good thing. Were commissioned officers as jittery and vindictive as many civilians, the body count would likely have been considerably higher in the aftermath of Maurice Clemmons’ quadruple cop-killing in Lakewood last November.

Suspect-shootings have happened at a higher-than-usual rate since that atrocity, which was magnified in December by the killing of a sheriff’s deputy at a house near Eatonville. But look at each case individually, as The News Tribune’s Stacey Mulick did in Sunday’s newspaper, and it becomes clear that the officers involved weren’t trigger-happy.

Police are justified in using their firearms in defense of their lives or the lives of others. The two fatal and four non-fatal shootings of suspects in the first three months of this year all met that standard.
In three cases, officers were threatened with visible guns. In two, suspects were trying to run them down with cars. In one, a robbery suspect approached officers while ignoring their orders to show his hands and get to the ground.

Occasionally a cop is not so judicious. In Everett last June, an officer killed an extremely inebriated 51-year-old who’d refused to get out of his car and then drove into a chain-link fence. Another officer at the scene testified that the drunken Stanwood man posed no lethal threat to anyone. The officer who pulled the trigger – eight times – now stands charged with first-degree manslaughter and second-degree murder.

Because the badge comes with the power of life and death, an exceptional level of accountability is appropriate. In Pierce County, each shooting triggers multiple investigations, including independent reviews by prosecutors.

A further option is a formal inquest – a fact-finding trial in which six jurors consider whether a shooting was justified.

One such inquest is now examining the Dec. 1 shooting of Clemmons by Seattle Officer Benjamin L. Kelly. Kelly and others have been testifying this week about the circumstances surrounding that death.

Like the shootings of suspects in Pierce County this year, Kelly’s action appears to be thoroughly justified. This was another case of a suspect refusing to show his hands – and the suspect in question was known to have just gunned down four other officers. Any officer would have perceived a lethal threat.

Still, Clemmons’ very notoriety might conceivably have prompted a rogue vigilante cop to shoot him without provocation. The inquest promises to clear Kelly of any suspicion and shed important light on Clemmons’ death. When an officer’s gun is fired, the more light the better.

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