By Joseph Orosco (July 13, 2016)
Last week, I wrote that tackling the problem of police violence was going to be difficult without altering legal standards around the use of deadly force. I used the example of Missouri’s laws which shielded Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Some people contacted me about the piece and asked me how Oregon state laws compared. Others wrote and insisted that police training really could make a difference and cited our local Corvallis police department as a nationally recognized example of what good cops can do.
I want to insist that better training of police officers may be a good thing, but the deeper issue is what police officers are legally allowed to do—that is, what legal standards around using deadly force can law enforcement officials use to defend their actions in court?
As it turns out, the Missouri legislature is working to alter their legal standards this year when it realized that their laws ran contrary to US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) standards. In 1985, SCOTUS ruled, in the case of Tennessee v. Garner, that police officers may not use deadly force to prevent the escape of a suspect unless the officers have “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Missouri law previously allowed a police officer to kill someone if they believed that a suspect had merely committed a felony or attempted to commit a felony. For instance, if Darren Wilson had believed that Mike Brown had robbed the convenience store, then he would have had legal justification to shoot him dead if he tried to flee arrest.
In 2015, Amnesty International issued a report that reviewed the use of force standards across the United States. Their key findings:
The international standards set by the United Nations in 1990 hold that:
“Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
Oregon is one of those states.
Oregon law allows police officers to shoot to kill a suspect if (among several conditions) the suspect is believed to have committed a felony involving use or threat of imminent physical force against someone, or engaged in kidnapping, arson, or burglary. Indeed, the law allows officers to use deadly force if they believe a suspect has committed any felony at all, given the “totality of the circumstances existing at the time and place” as they appear to the office and whether or not the suspect poses imminent threat of death or grave harm to the officer or someone else.
In other words, Oregon law allows police officers to use deadly force against suspects in a manner that is contrary to both national and international standards of law.
Body cameras and better training won’t stop the kind of killings we have seen if it is the law itself that licenses those actions.
It would appear to me that any groups in Oregon interested in preventing police brutality against people of color should have as part of their work a strategy to force state lawmakers to reform Oregon’s use of deadly force standards and bring them in line with the nationally and internationally recognized laws. Missouri has done some of this work. We should also.