Thursday, August 6, 2020
Aug. 6, 2020

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In Our View: Vancouver wise to review police use of force

The Columbian

A thorough examination of the use of deadly force by Vancouver police is a necessary and important undertaking. It should be accompanied by meaningful conversations between officials and the public.

Vancouver is not the only place where such conversations are needed. According to a database maintained by The Washington Post, 637 people in the United States have been shot and killed by police officers thus far in 2019. That includes 25 people in Washington. Throughout 2018, police shootings resulted in 992 deaths, including 22 in this state.

As a report this month in Nature: International Journal of Science states: “In the United States, police officers fatally shoot about three people per day on average, a number that’s close to the yearly totals for other wealthy nations.”

Examining these numbers must not be conflated with an effort to vilify law enforcement. Police often make split-second life-and-death decisions in an effort to protect the public, and a vast majority of police shootings are deemed to be justified.

According to the Police Integrity Group at Bowling Green State University, 98 nonfederal officers since 2005 have faced criminal charges in connection with fatal on-duty shootings; 35 of them have been convicted, usually of charges such as manslaughter rather than murder.

Take the case of Michael Eugene Pierce, a 29-year-old man shot and killed by police on Feb. 28 near downtown Vancouver. Pierce had been wielding replica guns, pointing them at motorists and pedestrians. The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office ruled the shooting justified and reported: “Pierce had pointed his replica pistols at multiple people and vehicles and refused to drop them when ordered to do so. Though Pierce was not armed with an actual firearm, the officers had no possible way to know this.”

The outcome was a tragedy, but it is difficult to imagine how police could have handled the incident differently when they believed the public was in danger.

Pierce’s death was part of a spate of shootings by the Vancouver Police Department. Three shootings between Feb. 5 and March 7 were fatal, heightening concern about police procedures and training.

Now, the city has contracted with the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit, national law-enforcement membership organization to assess training and procedures. The goal is neither to chastise nor embolden local police, but to improve how local officers serve the public.

The process will take about nine months, and the forum’s Tom Wilson said at a public meeting this week: “Let me be very frank on this, kudos to the Vancouver police chief for letting us do this. That’s a statement to you, to your police leadership, to your city manager.”

Indeed, Chief James McElvain deserves praise for undertaking the evaluation. Legitimate questions have been raised by members of the public following this year’s shootings, and recognition by officials that improvements can be made is part of being a public servant. The frequency of police shootings in this country suggests that there is, indeed, room for better de-escalation techniques.

That can place police in a difficult situation. If somebody is brandishing a weapon and acting in a threatening manner, the first duty of officers must be to protect themselves and the public. When a shooting does occur, there are procedures for investigation and, if necessary, prosecution. Justice does not mean the outcome that you desire, but equal access to the legal system.

The issues involved are complex. Vancouver leaders are wise to take a close look at them.