Never an excuse for shooting unarmed suspects, former police chief says

By Joseph D. McNamara
August 19, 2014

A police officer points a spotlight at a more vocal and confrontational group of demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near FergusonI was the police chief in Kansas City, Missouri, when an unarmed African-American teenager was shot by a cop for a non-violent issue. The result was a peaceful and constructive public dialogue — the opposite of what is happening now in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.

I was then the youngest big-city police chief in America, having just arrived from New York City, where I had been a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department during a high-crime period. But I had no real honeymoon in Missouri.

Just a few days after I took charge, on a crystal clear day in 1973, a uniformed officer responded to a daylight break-in of a home. The officer raised his shotgun and fired at a youth running away. He killed Rory Lark, age 15, unarmed and slight, at 115 pounds.

Police officers monitor a group of rowdy demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, MissouriThe Kansas City Star filled its entire front page with an image of Lark, an angelic school photo of the youngster who looked to be a skinny 10-year-old. If you had a heart, you had to be touched.

If Lark had received any punishment, it would likely have been a week in juvenile hall. As a gesture of sympathy to the black community, I attended his funeral in civilian clothes. The officer was reprimanded and transferred.

Reasonable people, black and white, didn’t want to hear how the law was complicated, or how a new chief was not responsible for the boy’s death. So we waited through the night to see if the city would burn. It didn’t. The next day, however, pickets appeared in front of police headquarters demanding, in none-too-polite language, that I should go back to New York.

Kansas City’s black community wanted to know, Why had this boy died for a nonviolent crime? My police department responded  quickly: He should not have been fired upon.

I reminded the media that I had announced in my first news conference as chief that I didn’t believe officers should use their firearms unless there was imminent danger to human life. I planned to rewrite the firearms policy, I had declared, so that officers were officially ordered not to fire except under those circumstances.

Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, MissouriAs soon as possible, we announced the official new policy. It prohibited police officers from firing at unarmed suspects. We cut back on all police use of military gear. We invited local community leaders to help shape police responses.

In the wake of the new policy, police shootings fell dramatically, and crime declined as local leadership joined with police in speaking out against crime.

The Lark shooting, remarkably similar to Ferguson today, offers lessons we can learn..

First, except for highly unusual circumstances, police have no excuse for killing unarmed people.

Second, it is in Americans’ national DNA that we be policed by civil, not military, institutions. So television and social media pictures of heavily armed police in military gear and armored vehicles are no way to gather public support. In Ferguson and across the nation, police need to recalibrate the use of deadly force — and return to traditional strategies of professional police forces working with the public to win support against criminals.

Demonstrators hold hands as they listen to speakers during a peaceful march in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, MissouriBody cameras, better training and discipline, new police leadership and other strategies are crucial. But it is clear that U.S. police must recalibrate current militarization policies, in which officer safety is paramount.

The fundamental police duty is protection of life. Officer safety should never supersede democratic policing, where police officers adhere to their role as public servants willing to take reasonable risks to protect and serve.

As Kansas City chief, I was responsible for maintaining order within my city, releasing to the public all legally permissible information through the media, the mayor and state and local officials.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, a self-appointed spokesman for an investigation of which he was not part, held frequent press conferences that only created more confusion. For example, when Jackson released the name of the officer involved in the shooting, he also released security camera stills of a convenience store robbery that he said are of Brown. Even though the Justice Department had asked the Ferguson Police Department not to do this.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announces the name of the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown as officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, MissouriJackson also did not coordinate with Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, whom Governor Jay Nixon had put in charge to help defuse the situation.

Jackson seems to have foolishly tried to walk through a legal minefield, possibly releasing information that could hinder the prosecution of involved officers. This may also lead to charges of a police cover-up.

Yet, all the remedial steps now being debated focus on actions to take after a tragic death — not the deep-rooted causes that must be part of real reform.

Yes, the heat is now on Ferguson police. The real challenge, however, is to all U.S. policing. Police nationwide have drifted into the militarization of attitude and equipment as a strategy for controlling street demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street, youth violence, heavy crime zones and drug searches.

This sort of militarization was intended for extremely rare hostage situations. The arrest of journalists and the use of tear gas in Ferguson is zany.

The major issue, though, still is the unanswered question: What justification do the police have for killing an unarmed suspect?

The answer is always: None.

PHOTO (TOP): A police officer points a spotlight at a more vocal and confrontational group of demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Police officers monitor a group of rowdy demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Demonstrators hold hands as they listen to speakers during a peaceful march in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

PHOTO (INSERT 4): Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announces the name of the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown as officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, August 15, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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