As promised, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle police chief Carmen Best met with community organizers on the morning of June 3rd, 2020 to discuss a police reform agenda. As expected, Durkan and Best spoke to the delusions of the false narratives that have been propagated by their partners in corporate media, which seek to confuse the public on the subjects and validity of the protests. The response to Durkan’s treachery, as expected, was a massive turn-out in favor of our constitutionally protected freedom of assembly to voice our outrage at systematic police violence.
I had just arrived at Eleventh and Pine on Capital Hill around five in the afternoon when the crowd erupted in celebration as a contingent of protesters arrived from the west, growing the crowd perhaps by a factor ten, it’s unclear. It was incredible, I’d never seen anything like it. In the face of blatant lies from public officials, the public mobilized in defense of truth. From the barricade on 11th and Pine, to the west for an entire block, people were packed shoulder to shoulder on the street while looser crowds assembled on the flanks.
Once the crowds combined, the soon-to-be-recalled mayor sent a curfew notification to our phones, seemingly in response to the growing crowd. The reaction from the crowd, of course, was resounding defiance and strengthened resolve, and it wasn’t long before word spread that the curfew had been canceled.
While I celebrate the mayor’s willingness to concede, the specific concession of allowing a constitutionally protected activity to proceed without threat of state violence was a strategic mistake if her objective is to protect the “best practices” of US police, which it appears to be. We now know she’s weak and afraid. And we’ve seen that our security resides in a broad, democratic consensus. However it’s expressed by the terms of perspective, we’re on the street in defense of the Rule of Law, and we’ll remain there until lawless policing is brought to heel. Durkan is lying to herself if she thinks otherwise.
At this point, I’d like to argue for a specific reform. Namely, I think we should unify on a use of force standard for police based on “objective necessity,” enforced by criminal liability for any use of force beyond what’s objectively necessary in the conduct of their duties, same as any other citizen would expect if they were to engage in wanton violence.
The benefit of a use of force standard based on objective necessity is that it would reward informed decision making and discourage unnecessary use of force. Objective necessity would turn officers into negotiators, rather than allowing them to devolve into ideologically motivated “warriors” with a warped sense of what’s “reasonable.”
There are, however, two obvious draw backs to objective necessity. First, police are incentivized to withhold force even when force could prevent greater harm. Second, police must depend on public faith when mistakes are made at the intersection of high stakes and misperception, which is inevitable given high rates of gun ownership.
Evaluating objective necessity against the current “objective reasonableness” standard comes down to this: Would restricting police use of force to a standard of objective necessity cost more than 330 human lives per year?
The Washington Post Police Shootings database shows that from 2015 to 2019, about one third of the people shot and killed by police were killed in circumstances that could not be classified as an “attack,” a designation used to indicate the “highest level of threat,” with a kill-rate just under 1000 shot and killed per year.
The database column heading “threat level” includes designations of “attack,” “other,” and “undetermined.” Attack is the most threatening designation, though “‘other’ includes many incidents where officers or others faced significant threats.”
While data collection and analysis is sticky on the issue of police violence, because the legal validity of police violence is largely dictated by an officer’s perceptions, we think it is fair to use the threat level designator to separate cases on a basis of proven and unproven suspect intent, where a threat level of attack indicates proven suspect intent to cause harm, while designations of other and undetermined indicate an ambiguous suspect intent. Though no broad stroke will perfectly classify thousands of cases, we believe that this approach is a defensible way to show that 1/3 fatal police shootings are clearly unnecessary by a standard of objective necessity. Further, we believe, based on the confrontational procedures currently used by police that many cases where the threat level was recorded as attack would have been proven unnecessary were police use of force initially restrained by a standard of objective necessity.
Now, to the second obvious draw back of objective necessity: that police must depend on public faith to shield them from prosecution in the event of a good-faith mistake. We think it should be reconsidered whether this is actually feature or flaw. Prosecutors and juries are generous to police, and we shouldn’t expect that to change. Furthermore, objective necessity would incent police to be allies on issues of justice reform, which would work to reduce the public’s incentive to resist unjust “justice,” thereby enacting a structural deescalation of our current “justice” system. This would, in turn, reduce the natural level of tension underlying law enforcement transactions, making them safer for everyone.
To conclude, Durkan showed her ass and the day is ours, but we have to unify on actionable reform items if we’re going to succeed in a timely manner. A use of force standard based on objective necessity is a powerful way to deny racists the cover of law. This reform argument is not intended to come at a cost to any other, and I don’t believe that it does.