Police officers face tough decisions and often time is not on their side. When it comes to the use of deadly force, the authority granted to police officers requires their ongoing accountability to the public, both as guardians of public safety and as members of these same communities.

With the proliferation of body-worn cameras, vehicle cameras and the multitude of recording devices currently within the public domain, many police interactions are now filmed and routinely shared. The majority of these recordings document law enforcement officers acting properly. However, in relation to Officer Involved Shooting (OIS) incidents, a growing number of recordings are documenting actions that are being categorized as “lawful but awful” – a phrase attributed to Professor Harold Koh.

Officer-Involved Shootings: Shifting Frameworks of Review

Traditional review of OIS incidents has centered upon determining whether the specific action in using force was legally justified. This type of review looks at the force option used and whether it was reasonable under the circumstances, often irrespective of the framework of events and decisions that led to the incident. The outcome of such an analysis is a determination as to whether or not the use of force was legally justified.

However, just because an OIS incident is deemed legally justified does not always make it right – particularly in the eyes of the general public. Unlike purely academic arguments about the morality of actions that are legal but ”not right,” an OIS often results in human injury and/or death. The growing body of videos of OIS incidents is generating wide and very public engagement on whether the actions of the shooting officer, or officers as the case may be, are appropriate – independent of the official review and investigation.

The public is not necessarily focused on legality, but rather on whether the officer “needed” to use force. The public discourse covers the gamut from whether the officer could have used less-lethal force options to whether an officer’s decision to engage an individual rather than retreat was the proper decision. For the overall public, it is less about whether the shooting was legally justified and more about whether the public believes the officer’s actions align with their vision of what an officer should do.

In effect, these public discussions support the philosophy advocated by Sir Robert Peel so many years ago when he identified that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect. (Sir Robert Peels 2nd Principle of Policing­).

Police Agencies Need to Get the Facts to the Public Quickly

In today’s policing environment, any time an officer engages in deadly force, it raises significant community focus – regardless of whether the shooting is determined to be legally justified. When conducting use of force investigations, law enforcement agencies need to be cognizant of the community impact that arises not only from the incident, but also as a result of the subsequent police/community interactions surrounding the investigation and the outcome of reporting the incident.

Reacting to what they are hearing, some agencies are modifying policies and training. Some are attempting to develop a new framework for the decision process and review of use of force decisions. As expected, there are a variety of viewpoints and decisions in this evolving framework. However, even without policy modifications, there are clear steps that law enforcement can take, particularly as it relates to OIS incidents.

Simply put, an agency needs to get the facts out to the public as soon as practical after the event.

Problems with OIS incidents do not go away, and a failure to timely address an incident, and even acknowledge a problem, often results in greater public damage and lost trust. Silence from law enforcement officials is not conducive to assuaging community concerns during such events. While investigations need to be thorough and impartial, police departments must also prepare to be quickly engaged in their communities when there is a use of force incident.

Communication Is Key

Use of force incidents, even if not local, have the potential to affect ongoing interaction with the community of police departments everywhere. Until there is a level of trust developed in our communities, obtained through fair and just policing and transparency in the actions of law enforcement officers and their agencies, the challenges facing police agencies will continue.

Agencies should have established communication and outreach protocols, ensuring early and ongoing contact with key community stakeholders when OIS incidents occur. Honesty and openness with the media and public are critical, as is being correct about the OIS incident and its sequence of action and outcomes. In the age of phones with video recording capabilities and social media, incidents can be instantly shared and spread in a matter of minutes. An agency statement inconsistent with the video will create even more challenges going forward. Even when there is an absence of social media over a use of force incident, law enforcement agencies must be able to communicate effectively and swiftly to alleviate community concerns.

Leveraging true police community partnerships, the foundation of community policing, is the way to ensure that the community is informed and engaged with as much information as possible. As identified in the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, when serious incidents occur, agencies should communicate with citizens and the media swiftly, openly and neutrally. Transparent communication and interaction with their communities, consistently not just during serious incidents,  will allow for greater trust and support of the officers and the agency.