When you willfully put yourself in harms way, is fearing for your safety still justification for killing?

According to a lawyer friend the law in this regard is reasonable and well defined. You can justify killing someone in self-defence if you have immediate threat of death or grievous bodily harm. And if you do, your actions will be judged subjectively.

Obviously this hasn’t come up out of the blue – last night, just days after the debacle over the bizarre ‘people with knives deserve to be shot’ police email leak, we’ve had a police shooting.

According to the (crappy) reporting so far, Christchurch police were called out to a ‘domestic’ incident, when they arrived a man was smashing up a car with a hammer. So far, so good. But from there things get murkier.

For some reason an armed police officer put himself in harms way, and shot the man wielding a hammer four times (according to an ear-witness report), possibly after the man with the hammer made ‘violent threats’.

The violent threats, in my humble opinion, are practically irrelevent – everybody has seen someone make stupid threats at the height of anger, and surely the police are trained to ignore what is said in these cases, and only act on what is actually being (or likely to be) done. So, I posit that we can for practical purposes ignore said threats.

More important than the threats, is whether the officer feared for his life, or only his safety.

This is an important distinction – fearing for your safety can be the natural response to a dumb drunk balling up his fist. But a drunken punch might hurt, but probably won’t lead to anything worse than bruising (I bet I’ve been punch a shit-load more than you have – and indeed I’ve been punched and kicked by police – I used to train with two police offers when I was active in my martial arts).

It can hurt to be punched, depending on where you’re hit, but reasonable people don’t believe that officers that are struck should shoot back, right? So to what degree did the officer fear for his safety? No question that a blow with a hammer is a great deal more dangerous than a blow with a clenched fist, but this isn’t an unreasonable question is it?

The police are (ineptly) trying to imply that he may have had other weapons than the hammer. However, as dubious as I am of this, I’m guessing that even if he did, it will turn out to be something highly menacing like a spanner or a tire iron. Because if he had, say a shotgun, we wouldn’t have even heard about the hammer, now would we?

If he had been armed with a firearm of some kind, that would be much more serious – and indeed it would be easier to justify his shooting. But I wonder if he would actually have been less likely to be shot – even the vast arrogance of some police will make them keep their distance from a man with a gun. And given just a little time for reflection, even an angry idiot can cool off and put down his weapon(s) and surrender to the police.

The crux of the biscuit, and this is the lesson that the police should have learned from the Wallace killing:
A man with a hammer (or a golfclub), no matter how enraged he is, can’t hurt or damage anything he can’t reach.

So why, knowing this simple fact of physics, would you walk up and stand close enough to him that he represents an immediate threat to you?

Contain the threat, keep your distance, and wait for backup. If a dog gets there, send it in to bite the shit out of him. 6 stout men with helmets and long batons should be able to make pretty short work of ‘pacifying’ one guy with a hammer – no matter who he is – with no risk to any of their lives.

(N.B. I fully realise that it is possible that the police on the scene tried to do this – and that the man immediately charged the officers on their arrival, giving them no choice but to defend themselves. So please forgive me for expressing my concerns with this shooting before all the facts are available – for I am greatly and genuinely concerned about abuses of power by armed police, and believe that more talk on this subject is better than less.)

Property damage simply doesn’t justify killing, but I don’t think it requires an unreasonable mind to think it might justify a damn good thrashing.

Regardless of the facts in this case, here are three things I believe:
1. It is better for our entire society that police can be trusted and respected, and I don’t want to see them attacked (whether merely hurt, or indeed killed). But being a police officer doesn’t give you an automatic right to kill or hurt who you want, so sometimes the best course of action is to keep your distance and try to contain the situation rather than back a nutter into a corner and force unnecessary confrontation.
2. The police need to sort their shit out when dealing with the media.
3. This is going to be used as justification for a nationwide Tazer roll-out.

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this matter, and I genuinely hope that it turns out that the police acted reasonably in this case.

2 thoughts on “When you willfully put yourself in harms way, is fearing for your safety still justification for killing?

  1. This story shocked and saddened me this morning. I want to trust and respect the police, just as you state, especially given a couple of family members work within the force, but this incident just sounds bad from the get-go.

    An investigation by the Police Compaints Authority has been launched immediately. I am somewhat dubious about the independent nature and neutrality of these inquiries but it certainly seems that the policeman involved made some bad/disasterous decisions and appropriate action needs to be taken.

    From an observers point of view though, I am concerned about the way that the Police deal with the media (or are dealt with). They are constantly portrayed in a negative fashion, just as teachers and nurses are. All these professions are “caring”, community based professions that unfairly get “beaten up” by the media. I don’t think it will matter what the circumstances exactly were in the Chch case but I am certain we will not have clear reporting of the main issues. It will be sensationalist etc. From the other side of the fence, the police often come across like an “old boys” club, protecting their own. That’s not a great defence either.

    I feel truly sorry for all parties involved in this incident.

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t the Police Complaints Authority automatically investigate all incidences of deaths by police?

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