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Shocking Truth About Law Enforcement’s Most Self-Serving Myth

December 14, 2014 in Blogs

By Jane Chong, Joseph Pomianowski, Salon

The reason it's so hard to prosecute cops who use deadly force is the same reason minorities are so often targeted.

That “split second” before police officers killed Michael BrownEric Garner and John Crawford was shaped by decades of judicial decision-making.

In the wake of these killings, we have been told, over and over again, that police officers must have the flexibility to make “split-second decisions” to protect the public and themselves. This language has become so commonplace that we would be forgiven for assuming that we have always used it to explain why law enforcement has killed scores of unarmed minorities over the years. After all, the underlying claim rings true: In the line of duty, police officers unquestionably face abrupt dangers that require rapid response.

Law enforcement agencies rely heavily and indiscriminately on this idea, that officers must act with split-second timing, to explain police conduct in an enormous range of circumstances. But as it turns out, this may have little to do with the facts on the ground and everything to do with covering their legal bases.

The split-second rationale gained traction among the lower courts in the 1960s and vaulted into the public discourse with the landmark 1989 Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor, which remains the bedrock of state and federal use-of-force laws. In that case, with these important words, the court justified the onerous “objective reasonableness” standard that makes it almost impossible to hold officers liable for their conduct:

“The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

For the last two and a half decades, state and federal courts have relied on that sentence in dismissing countless civil rights lawsuits alleging excessive use of force.

Graham did not mark the first time members of the Supreme Court expressly cited the split-second nature of police decision-making to justify questionable police conduct. The phrase actually made a racially charged appearance over 20 years earlier in …read more


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