The US Park Police killing of Bijan Ghaisar last November can now be seen on line, thanks to another police agency that recorded the shooting on a Dash-Cam.
No one can decide whether this shooting was legal, based only on the video and press accounts. But everyone can decide that the police lacked what President Dwight D. Eisenhower once asked our entire nation to display: patient courage.
On Dec.2 1954, at the height of the Cold War, Eisenhower was under political pressure to authorize military action. His response was that every other means had not yet been exhausted:
“The hard way,” he said, “is to have the courage to be patient, tirelessly to seek out every single avenue open to us” before using violence.
Yet many police agencies fail to teach that message. Instead, their systems allow officers to put themselves in harm’s way, where there can be no patience if they reasonably believe there is a risk to life.
At the time Ghaisar was shot, he was apparently not wanted for any violent crime, nor for a hit-and-run, nor for a serious offense. His crime was refusing to stop for a police officer.
That is not a legal basis to shoot or kill, by any US law or firearms policy I have seen in a half-century of educating police. Yet somehow, at least one officer decided that it was. What kind of police system can produce that kind of decision?
The US Park Police have been here before. In 1994, a disturbed man with a knife taped to his hand chased a police officer around Lafayette Park in front of the White House. The officer called for backup, and a small group of officers formed a semicircle with guns pointed at the man.
While he ignored police orders to drop the knife, the man stood very still, staring at police from well beyond reach of his knife. Other police cleared bystanders away, and the standoff continued for several minutes. Then a siren was heard as another police car drove up near the scene.
A US Park Police officer emerged, ran over to the other officers already dealing with the man, and immediately shot him twice, fatally.
The shooting police officer was not prosecuted, but none of the other officers present had deemed it necessary to shoot the man. Different reactions to the situation by different officers reveal a system problem of excessive decentralization, in which no one is in command at the scene of a life-or-death standoff.
For decades, some police agencies have required supervisory approval by radio even to engage in a hot pursuit, usually limited to a clear risk of serious harm (which seems to have been lacking in the Ghaisar case). The late Yale police scholar Albert Reiss proposed in 1980 that the same should be done for “permission to shoot,” without which police should follow the UK police practice of avoiding direct engagement with armed persons.
That is just what Camden, NJ police officers did in their celebrated, non-lethal arrest of a knife-wielding man in late 2015, as recently noted in the Washington Post. Under their philosophy of “Hippocratic Policing” that first does no (unnecessary) harm, they had the courage to be patient. But their action was not the heroic courage of individuals. It was the systemic courage of training, procedures, review and management.
Even in a police agency supporting systemic courage, individual officers may need the courage of self-control. When a car stops for police and drives off, not once but repeatedly, there is a natural fear of humiliation of the officers in the eyes of their peers.
By shooting, they may save face—but not lives.
It takes a very strong system to support the first officer on the scene in Camden, who did not use his legal powers to shoot the man with the knife. Instead, he took the lead for what grew to some 15 officers who were all holding fire together.
Police agencies can build patient courage without risking injury to police officers. Some have opposed patient courage as more dangerous to police. But that argument misses the point: that officers have no duty to put themselves in harm’s way when there is no direct threat to anyone.
It is only when they lack the courage to be patient that they create a threat to themselves. Patient courage is not only wise. It also brings more police officers home from work each day, alive and well.
Lawrence W. Sherman is Chair of the Police Executive Programme at Cambridge University and Distinguished University Professor of Criminology at the University of Maryland. He welcomes readers’ comments.