Nip it in the bud

We desperately need a substantive post around here. Not sure that I'm up to it, but here's a remainder from our recent police violence thread.

A very widely held view seems to be that police shootings, or at any rate, the shoot first tactics employed by police, are justified by the fact that the individuals targeted by police violence appeared to pose a threat, or fit the profile of a threat poser, or something like that. Call this the police-defense rationale.

When encountering the police-defense rationale it is tempting, for me at least, to get into a discussion focused on whether the apparent threat was as serious as supposed by police. Arguing this point, however, already concedes a contentious claim. Namely, that these sorts of police tactics are properly justified on the same sorts of grounds that you or I might use to justify acting in self-defense against what philosophers charmingly call an Unjust Aggressor.

One reason to doubt the claim that the police-defense rationale parallels the principle of self-defense is that there is a significant disanalogy between paradigm cases of self-defense and the sorts of situations that advocates of the police-defense rationale would judge permissible.

In a paradigm case of self-defense, you are set upon by an Unjust Aggressor and face the choice of either defending yourself with deadly force or suffering grievous harm. Among the morally relevant facts here are that it is the Unjust Aggressor who chose to bring about a situation such that one of you will die or suffer grievous harm, and the severity of the consequences you will certainly face if you refrain from using deadly force.

Now, compare this to a situation in which police have invaded a home in the middle of the night and employ deadly force when faced with an apparently armed occupant. Unlike the paradigm self-defense case, this situation is one such that deadly force is used by the party responsible for circumstances being as they are. Also unlike the paradigm case, this situation is one in which deadly force is used by a party which cannot be sure that the alternative is death or grievous harm.[1] Lastly, it is worth noting that the police created this situation in order to avoid the possibility of a consequence much less serious than death, namely the possibility that evidence might be destroyed if less aggressive tactics were to be employed.

The point is that the police-defense rationale allows the use of deadly force in a much wider range of cases than would the traditional principle of self-defense. As such, one need not accept the police-defense rationale merely because one accepts the principle of self-defense. Further, insofar as one accepts the limitations commonly placed on the principle of self-defense, there would appear to be good reason to think that the police-defense rationale goes too far.

Leaving all this aside, there seems to me to be another reason to distrust the police-defense rationale. Consider that police already have, prior to any threat to themselves or bystanders, the right to employ force in the line of duty. Given that police have this right, it seems ad hoc to maintain that there is a subset of cases in which the right of the police to use force rests on a separate rationale. Which is not to say that I'm personally in possession of anything like a general justification for police employment of force. I suspect, however, that any plausible account of legitimate police violence is going to insist that show a lot more restraint than they currently do.

1 The claim here is just that given (a) the obscurity of the possible threat; (b) the fact that untrained persons tend to be bad shots; and, (c) the fact that the police are wearing body armor, the police can't claim anything like the certainty found in paradigm cases of self-defense.

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