BOISE – From 2018 to 2021, police in Nampa, Meridian and Boise shot and killed 12 people, from a 29-year-old who stabbed and killed the mother of his child to a Nampa man with a fake gun to a Boise man who pointed a speaker at the police.
One of the most fundamental aspects of the legal system is that the punishment should fit the crime. And one of the areas where this is most questioned is when the police kill someone. After all, death is the ultimate price to pay.
The use of force is a controversial topic and has been on the radar for quite some time. And while there are several forms of use of force, fatal police shootings tend to attract a lot of attention, in part because of the use of deadly force.
There are many different opinions about whether death is an appropriate punishment for any crime. But at the same time, the police must protect themselves and others from being injured.
“We’re talking about people’s bodies here,” said Cody Jorgensen, associate professor of criminal justice at Boise State University. “Police are legally allowed to kill people under certain circumstances.”
Under what circumstances can the police use force?
When police responded to the shooting at the Boise Towne Square mall in October 2021, an officer fired his weapon into the mall.
When shots rang out at an RV park in Meridian in 2020, officers shot and killed 58-year-old Arthur Ferrel.
But, perhaps surprisingly, none of these are technically defined as a situation where the police can use force because there is no strict definition.
Nampa and Meridian’s ‘use of force policy’ both say there is no policy that can reasonably predict every possible situation an officer might find. Instead, officers must use “reasonable discretion.” Boise’s policy says the decision to use force depends on “the facts and circumstances of each case.”
Both Nampa and Meridian also said officers can use deadly force to protect themselves and others from what an officer “reasonably believes is an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm.”
Nampa and Meridian’s policies also include factors used to determine the reasonableness of force, such as the risk and potential consequences of flight, the availability of other options, the proximity of weapons, and the individual’s mental state or capacity.
Boise’s criteria for determining use of force include the nature and extent of the threat, the severity of the crime, the officer/subject’s size and other physical characteristics, and environmental considerations.
Another justification is to stop a fleeing person when the officer has probable cause to believe that they have committed or intend to commit a crime that would result in serious injury or death if the person was not immediately apprehended.
More specifically, Nampa’s policy said officers can use “reasonable force” to arrest a person who is fleeing or resisting.
However, the inclusion of the word “reasonable” is disputed.
Objective reasonableness has been a standard since Graham v. Connor in 1989. In that case, an officer handcuffed a diabetic patient experiencing an insulin reaction, suspecting he had done something wrong at a convenience store. No crime had been committed, so the patient was released but was injured.
“What is fair and objective has to be seen in terms of what a reasonable officer would do, not just what a reasonable person would do,” Jørgensen said. “There are different interpretations of the word reasonable based on policy circles and members of the public.”
And there are aspects of policing that can lead police to use excessive force, he said.
For example, Jørgensen said there are parts of the police subculture that make police officers believe their job is more dangerous than it actually is. He said part of the police subculture is overly suspicious. There is also a saying, “It is better to be judged by 12 than buried by six.”
An exaggeration of danger combined with the proliferation of firearms in America can lead to situations where reasonable officers feel threatened, he said.
Nampa Police Lt. Eric Skoglund said he personally felt he couldn’t relate to what Jorgensen said about police culture. Skoglund said officer safety is a big part of the training.
“I don’t think that training leads to an officer mentality in their job that is more dangerous than it actually is,” Skoglund said.
He said officers are aware that they can be killed on the job and that it is “probably one of the few professions” where the cause of death is homicide. But he said there are other job hazards, like driving on patrol, and officers are also trained in safe driving. He also said as part of the training, officers are taught to be aware of possible dangers.
“You don’t know if that person may be armed or unarmed. You don’t know what that individual’s mindset is until you start engaging in the conversation,” Skoglund said. “So initially, what we teach our officers from the first contact, is just to be aware and not jump to conclusions.”
Meridian Police Chief Tracy Basterrechea said the best way to avoid strained community relations is to build a “culture of service” and make sure public interactions are viewed as fair and just.
He said he didn’t feel threatened in Idaho because of guns because most people tell him if they carry. The level of violence in a community is what drives heightened awareness and feeling threatened, Basterrechea said.
“spanWhen you have someone who doesn’t understand a subject, things can be misinterpreted and mischaracterized,” Basterrechea said. “Use of force is always messy and never looks like it does in movies, so people without experience will make very ill-informed opinions.”/span
spanPolice work has changed over the years, Basterrechea said, and so has use-of-force training. De-escalation has also become a priority in many departments. He said Meridian police are working with a university to determine what effect de-escalation has. /span
span”spanThe old way of training officers to think that everyone is out to kill you is extremely outdated,” Basterrechea said. “Instead, you provide your officers with great training and equipment so they feel confident doing their job and know that if they need to defend themselves, they have those skills.”/span/span
Legal but terrible
Unfortunately, there are situations in the United States where people are shot and killed by the police, and the public sees what happened differently than the “reasonable cop.”
In some cases, the person killed may have what is thought to be a weapon, but it turns out to be a phone, a wallet, or just something black in their hand. Other times, someone has a fake gun.
“This refers to the dilemma called the Split Second Syndrome, where the police are put in situations where it’s a life-or-death situation,” Jørgensen said. “Obviously, when it comes to a fake gun … the police will perceive it as a real gun and react like it. … It looked like a real gun. What do you expect the police to do?”
But other situations, for example, when someone is unarmed, can end up with “legal but horrible,” Jorgensen said, where the responding police officers act legally but it turns out the person wasn’t actually a deadly threat.
This kind of “legal but terrible” situation can affect community relations because there is a difference between how the police would view the case and how the public views it.
“From the public’s perspective, it appears that it was unjustified and unwarranted,” Jørgensen said. “The public is not in the police world. And you know, they live in different echo chambers.”
The Treasure Valley is not immune to public criticism of police shootings. Members of the Bantu community met with Boise leaders and protested after Mohamud Mkoma, a local refugee, was shot by police in June 2021. Mkoma survived the shooting. The Office of Police Accountability mostly exonerated the officers, though a report said two of them violated policy by not turning on their body cameras.
Later that year, Zachary Snow was shot and killed by police after his mother Melissa Walton called 911 seeking help for her son during a mental health crisis. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing after a report said Snow pulled an object from his waistband, assumed a shooting position and pointed the object at the officers. It turned out to be a portable speaker.
Walton filed a lawsuit against the city of Boise. A jury trial is scheduled for March next year.
The police perspective
Area law enforcement told the Idaho Press that such moments are scary for officers, difficult and can be an adrenaline rush.
“There’s all the things that go into any kind of combat situation, there’s fear for your safety. There’s fear for the safety of those around you, and even the safety of the suspect,” Basterrechea said. Basterrechea said he has been involved in numerous use-of-force situations over 27 years, but none that led to a critical incident.
“Officers are human beings just like everybody else. We have emotions and we have different responses to trauma and stress,” said Boise Police Chief Matt Jones. “Generally, having been in use-of-force situations yourself, your concern is, ‘Am I going to get hurt? , will my partners be at risk, is a member of the public at risk?'”
Area law enforcement also emphasized that in most situations, police officers do not use force. Jones said in 2022 there were 122,000 calls for service where officers interacted with the public. In the same time frame were three officer-involved shootings.
There are other forms of power besides shooting. Basterrechea said there is soft control, such as grabbing someone by the arm and escorting them.
There is also harsh empty-handed control, such as punching or punching someone or forcing them to the ground.
“Probably the most common use of force that you’re going to see is to grab somebody and end up rolling around in a wrestling match with them on the ground,” Basterrechea said.
And Skoglund said most times officers use force, it’s not with a firearm.
“Ideally, you go through a career and you never have to use your firearm,” said Skoglund, who added that he has never had to fire his weapon in the line of duty. “But some circumstances that you may be in may dictate that you have to, so you have to be capable of it if you need to.”
But police officers go through more than just firearms training. They are also trained in use of force procedures, such as what situations may warrant it, as well as in de-escalation.
“Having good scenario-based training, opportunities to role-play or think through situations beforehand helps a lot in situations you’re put in that are similar to what you’ve trained in,” Skoglund said.
Skoglund said the training helps make split-second decisions.
“You can’t always predict someone’s actions,” Skoglund said. “I’ve been out on the street with people and all of a sudden they fly away from you and you didn’t see it happen.”
And while police emphasized that the vast majority of situations don’t involve firearms or even force, that doesn’t mean de-escalation is always the right move.
“Obviously if I run into someone and they’re obviously pointing the gun at me, I’m not going to wait to try to talk them out of shooting me, I’m going to respond appropriately,” Basterrechea said. “If I show up on stage and someone immediately accuses me, I’m not going to try to talk them out of hitting me, they’ve obviously already made up their minds.”
In a school shooting, for example, the public will want the officers to respond accordingly to the shooter. And if they didn’t, the public could lose some confidence in the police, like what happened in Uvalde, Texas, after first responders took over an hour to get into the building.
“So you know, using verbal things when you find someone to say, ‘Hey, stop shooting’. They fire rounds while you say it. Then they kill people and you waste time?” said Skoglund. “That’s the judgmental position that officers are put in to make these decisions, and we want them to do the best they can and make what they think is the right decision.”