Wolley: ‘I feared for my life’ is not enough

November 11, 2017

The ongoing work of criminal justice reform will require a new paradigm for interactions between black people and the police in Indianapolis.

Within our current national environment, there is a broader understanding of the challenges members of marginalized communities face in the criminal justice system—and a burgeoning political will to do something about the inequities. Today, even the most competent local prosecutor’s office and police department will face questions as we move to a new understanding of a 21st century criminal justice system that accounts for trust- and legitimacy-deficits in large segments of local communities across the country.

In the wake of the Aaron Bailey shooting, black leaders called for the implementation of nationally recognized, procedural best practices for the investigation and prosecution of fatal police-action shootings meant to increase trust and legitimacy in the process. Local law enforcement officials did not investigate themselves. There was a parallel investigation by the FBI with additional review of the shooting for possible civil rights violations beginning after the criminal investigation. A special prosecutor from an urban community took over the prosecution at the request of Prosecutor Terry Curry. Finally, a grand jury did not hear this case.

IMPD is recommending termination to the Civilian Police Merit Board. Some policing reforms are also already under way, including implicit-bias training.

Special Prosecutor Kenneth Cotter’s report on the tragic shooting was compelling. I understand the outcome within the old paradigm of police interactions with black men where a subjective determination based on a combination of facts allows an officer to “reasonably” claim he feared for his life. The Aaron Bailey case fits the old paradigm, but I do not believe the police officers had to shoot Aaron Bailey. We need a new paradigm for police-action shootings in general.

While the facts matter, I’m not interested in reviewing the fact patterns of the Aaron Bailey shooting. I’m concerned about a more general issue: How do you create a situation where a police officer who fears for his or her life must demonstrate a higher standard than the current broad and subjective one?

Part of the black community’s concern with fatal police shootings is that many are deemed permissible that did not have to happen, because it’s too easy to assert the “I feared for my life” defense. To be fair, we ask officers to protect us from dangerous people who not only prey on the community but also might have no compunction about fighting or killing a police officer. As our collective representative on the street, I want IMPD to win in any altercation in which a citizen unlawfully and violently is disturbing the peace. But this is not a license to shoot first and ask questions later.

To move forward, we need policymakers to revisit the use-of-force-continuum officers use to make decisions about lethal force. There must be a rebalancing of the legitimate concern for officer safety versus the use of lethal force in police interactions with the community.

The new policy needs to take into consideration the extensive training officers receive balanced against a clearly defined standard for actions in which lethal use of force may be deemed warranted in an interaction. We need to move from “I feared for my life” to a demonstration that a shooting victim was clearly going to inflict serious bodily harm or kill the officer or others.•


Wolley is a lecturer at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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