By Pierce County Sheriff, Paul Pastor
When we raise our right hand to swear our oath of office as a peace officer, we enter a realm of risk.
Two risks are the most serious. The first risk is that we will have force used against us and will be seriously injured or killed in the context of carrying out our duties. The second risk is that we will use force and injure or kill another person in the performance of our duties.
Both risks are real. Both carry tremendous costs for individuals, families and the entire community. Both often occur in the same incident. The first risk is often acknowledged. The second risk is more subtle and complex.
These risks surrounding use of force can be mitigated with the proper application of strong ethics, policies, training and equipment. These risks can also be reduced by strengthening trust between law enforcement and the community. Unfortunately, these risks can never be completely eliminated.
The number of officers killed in the line of duty due to hostile action is trending up this year after a two year decline. This risk of injury or death accompanies us whenever we report for duty, answer 911 calls, intervene in disputes and arrest those who commit crimes.
But the other more subtle risk also accompanies us on a daily basis. Many of those outside of the law enforcement family may not fully count the costs of this risk but the costs are high.
The daily work of law enforcement involves making difficult moral choices in situations which are often quick, and chaotic and unpredictable. Our greatest challenge is to make good choices balancing a variety of ethical and legal issues often without the advantage of time for deliberation, an opportunity to consult with others or the advantage of all the information we would like to have.
Sometimes we make the wrong choices. Most often this is due to lack of information, misreading of cues, or just plain fear. We are aware that if we make wrong choices those choices can devastate communities and agencies.
But what is remarkable is how seldom this takes place. What is remarkable is how day-afterday, shift-after-shift, 24/7 people in law enforcement act ethically and legally and make the right choices.
Even when we act within the law and within ethical standards in using lethal force, there are costs which attend its use: substantial costs to families and communities but also costs to the officer involved. The taking of a life, even when legal and ethical, eats a bit of your soul.
Whatever the outcome of the investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we should remember the fact that most interactions and arrests which take place every day do not end in violence by the officer or by the citizen. In most instances, trust and restraint operate to bring about a non-violent outcome. Trust and restraint are what we should aim for.
But trust and restraint are a two way street. Both sides need to be invested. Otherwise things don’t work. The late Yale Professor Albert Reiss said it best: “Ultimately, a civil police depends upon a civil community. But the police are in a unique position to impact the civility of the community.”
It falls to law enforcement to take the initiative in the area of trust and restraint. It falls to the community to meet law enforcement half-way and help mitigate the risks we face.