Police Discretion: The Duality of Lethality

Media used: Frontline, Joe Sexton, November 29, 2018

I Don’t Want To Shoot You, Brother

The media source I reviewed is an episode of The Frontline Dispatch podcast titled “I Don’t Want to Shoot You, Brother.” In this episode the listener is led into the world of police use of force and discretion in the case of the shooting of R.J. Williams, though this case subverts expectation. The first officer to arrive at the scene is the focus of the episode, Stephen Mader. Williams repeatedly requests that Mader shoot him, holding a firearm and repeating his request. Mader identifies this as suicide by cop and elects to not fire his weapon on Williams. It was this decision that ultimately cost him his job after two other officers arrived on scene, eventually taking the life of Williams. In a shocking turn of events, the action taken against an officer in a shooting was that of being fired for not killing a visibly armed man.

Discretion and the use of force continuum are a deeply debated combination in law enforcement, but it is very rare that this outcome is seen. The case of Williams is a case study in the intersection of the two and the impact of the quality and quantity of information has on the outcome of a police interaction. The podcast creates an outline of the situation step by step before contextualizing the aftermath. The episode provides interesting insight on a phenomenon they refer to as “Blue Lives Matter More,” an idea that the mentality of a police officer revolves around making sure that they are the ones that go home at the end of the day. They cite an incident where an officer allowed a subject to chase them with a pipe before backup subdues the attacker. The officer is criticized by their peers for not taking action against the subject, but the family of the subject shows immense gratitude for not killing their family member.

The concept of Blue Lives Matter More can be seen in decisions such as Grahm v. Connor and Tennesee v. Garner  (Terrill, 2016) where the lines of acceptable use of force are drawn in vague terms and provide greater discretion on the part of the officer. When coupled with this case, it makes a clear argument that context matters and neither Mader nor the officer that shot Williams arguably made the wrong call. The standards set for “objectively reasonable force” are such that cases like this have unfortunate endings where two officers can have drastically different opinions on the situation (Terrill, 2016). Objectively reasonable force is the lynchpin of the issues around police use of force. There are cases like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray in which the officers had to make decisions in the moment that received tremendous public backlash with no official sanctions. Ronald Wright (2017) brings to light a system of police accountability that takes aim at cases such as those listed above and aided Mader in his civil suit against the police department: legal prosecution. Chief prosecutors are elected officials in the United States and as such the people have the power to ensure that their local prosecutor is doing their job to the satisfaction of the public. While Mader did not employ the chief prosecutor, this is still a strong lesson to be learned. Police accountability is a hurdle in the background of the case of Williams, but it is a feature nonetheless.

I personally believe that this episode provides an interesting look into the lesser known world of police internal politics. With that said, it is not what I would consider a starting point and would implore that a listener pay close attention and seek a foundational understanding elsewhere. Through personal experience I am able to sift between the shock of the outcome and the deeper issues with some review and rewinding, but it still took a few listens at times. The episode is a great chance to broaden horizons and introduce a listener to new ideas like “Blue Lives Matter More” and the mentality of a duty cop in limited scenarios. There are no winners or happy endings in this episode, but that is a critical element that I believe makes this podcast worth listening to. Punches are not pulled and heart strings are tugged. It is recommended that the listener keep expectations in check and do their best to see everything from the point of view of all participants more so than ever.

 

 

References

Terrill, W. (2016), Deadly Force. Criminology & Public Policy, 15: 491-496. doi:10.1111/1745-9133.12193

Wright, R. F. (2017). Elected Prosecutors and Police Accountability. In A. J. Davis, Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment (pp. 3-20). Vintage Books.

 

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