Police officers carry guns and they sometimes, in exceptional cases, have no choice but to use them. But police should be much better trained to de-escalate and defuse confrontations. They receive extensive training and practice on how to use their guns. They need a lot more training on when and how not to use them.
That is the essence of the sensible recommendations of a jury in a coroner’s inquest that considered the fatal shootings by the police of three people who were mentally ill, in separate incidents. All of them were carrying sharp objects when they were shot.
Police officers of course have a right to defend themselves, and sometimes they must shoot to kill. But that right should not trump all other considerations. The resort to force, deadly or otherwise, should be the very last possible response.
The jury was prudently cautious about any increased use of Tasers, and recommended further study on whether they present special dangers to people who are emotionally disturbed. And this isn’t just a question of how police deal with the mentally ill. De-escalation, rather than guns or Tasers, may work best with many people who are not suffering from a mental illness at all, but simply upset or angry.
The death in 2007 of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant, in Vancouver Airport, is a striking example. He was frustrated and agitated; at one point he picked up a stapler – not exactly a dangerous weapon. The police officers who arrived, after he’d spent hours wandering the airport without harming anyone, did not try to talk to him. They did not try to figure out what was wrong. Instead, they went into a combat mentality, and repeatedly Tasered to him. He died.
Yes, it is especially important for police officers to learn to try to calm a mentally disturbed person. But de-escalation, and common sense, should be the first resort in all situations.
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