May I versus Should I

We are all struck with varying emotions and unsettling concern of recent events predicated on police/citizen fatal interactions that have galvanized protests around our country. I am a retired Chicago Police sergeant with 38 years of service, 33 of which I worked the streets of inner-city communities on the south and west sides of Chicago, and my last five years at the Chicago Police Training Academy where I became in charge of recruit training. I feel confident in expressing my thoughts about “May I versus Should I” because I have been involved in numerous incidents of being shot at, guns pointed at me, stabbed, beaten, bitten, etc. I fully understand the emotional stress when a person places your life or that of another in peril. Not all my peers agree with my positions and perspectives regarding police/citizen encounters, however, the majority do. Thus, I want to express some thoughts.

In the law enforcement world police officers are taught what is lawful, the “May I” position. When police officers are engaged in a situation involving a person pointing a gun, shooting a gun, holding a gun, or displaying any object used as a weapon in a threatening manner is, according to the Illinois State Statutes, reasonable justification for when a police officer “May” use deadly force. However, the real underlying ethical and perhaps moral question is “Should” an officer use deadly force? Should deadly force always be used? Is there something else that can be done to mitigate a situation without the use of deadly force? My position is there are many instances when a police officer may use deadly force but instead should not.  

I know for certain; police officers do not like to write reports or deliberately place their lives in peril, especially when there are available alternatives. Police officers, all the good ones (which is the vast majority) do not wake up, put on their uniform, and go to work with a thought of wanting to shoot someone. There are numerous police/citizen encounters when a police officer may use deadly force but chooses not to. Normally no one hears of those incidents, it is not newsworthy. Unfortunately, there are situations that transition into threats of violence, placing lives in danger, and heightens emotions very rapidly requiring quick thinking and decision making. It is because of these occasions that continuous training and experience become a police officer’s benchmark for making good decisions.

While interacting with citizens, police officers are exposed to innumerable issues, situations, and human frailties that provide abundant varieties of experiences known in police jargon as, “war stories”. If someone were to ask any police officer whether they had any “war” stories the answer would undoubtedly be yes. I too have a copious number of them, too many to report here however, to prove a point I will tell of one that corroborates my position of “may I or should I”.

I was working the day watch by myself on a beautiful summer day. It was around 10 am when I received a call from the dispatcher assigning me to a domestic disturbance. Fortunately, I was right on the very corner, two doors away from the address of the disturbance. I turned the corner, pulled to the curb, and exited my squad car. My intention was to wait for backup, but that idea suddenly eroded as a woman, dressed in a robe, ran out from the house where I was dispatched screaming, “He’s got a gun. He wants to shoot me”! She ran to me and stated that she and her husband were arguing when suddenly he erupted into a rage, grabbed his gun, pointed it at her, and threatened to shoot her. She demanded that I go into the house to arrest her husband. I began to explain that I was waiting for backup when a man burst through the front door unto the front porch, holding a gun in his right hand, and stood in the open doorway shouting expletives – it was the husband and he was angry with his wife for calling the police. He was holding a revolver in his right hand pointing downward. The wife became more hysterical. I withdrew my weapon from its holster and ordered the man to drop his gun. He refused and continued with some diatribe while remaining in the doorway. I began to walk toward the husband while simultaneously continuing to communicate with him. He slowly began to raise his gun toward me. Split seconds! Everything happening within a blink of the eye. His wife began screaming and pleading “Don’t kill him”!! May I, should I? Within a flash, I bolted to the top of the stairs just as his gun was pointed at me and I grabbed his right wrist and slammed it against the door frame. The husband’s gun dropped, but I still had a problem. I had my gun in my hand and he grabbed it – the fight was on. While still in the doorway two large German Shepherds began gnawing on my backside. The husband and I landed on the floor. The husband was attempting to twist the barrel end of my gun into my stomach to shoot me. He was a large man, over 6’ at 220 lbs. matched to my 5-9 170 lbs., the dogs were having a field day chomping on fresh meat, and I was struggling to control the husband. Suddenly, a police officer arrived and escorted the dogs out of the house. That gave me the leverage to overcome my contender and handcuff him. We both went to the hospital where I received several stitches in my rear exposure.

The outcome. The wife made an allegation against me for brutality, this is most common in domestic abuse calls. Police officers in domestic battery situations usually end up as the bad guy. I charged the husband with aggravated assault of his wife and a simple battery to me. In court, the judge asked if I wanted restitution for my uniform – I refused. The husband was sentenced to supervision. About a week after the court sentencing, I received a call from the dispatcher to see the desk sergeant. When I arrived at the station I walked toward the front desk where I observed a large man standing while speaking with the sergeant and other officers. It was the husband. He stuck out his hand to shake mine. We shook hands and through tears, he apologized. He gave me a bear hug and thanked me for not shooting him and being forgiving at the trial. He and his wife reconciled. I know they were doing well because they lived in my beat of assignment and I saw them regularly. We talked, but never again about the incident. May I or should I? I will leave that for the reader to reflect on. I have many more stories, but I thought this one would make a good juxtaposition to current incidents.   

My thoughts are not intended to highlight me but the many officers who encounter situations when someone is threatening, attempting, or perpetrating great bodily harm against another and/or a police officer. It is unfortunate that bad decisions are made, a person dies because of that decision, and it is utilized as a mantra to perpetrate violence and hate against police officers. No one is perfect, nonetheless, we hold police officers, and should hold them, to a higher standard, but bad decisions are made and there must be accountability. It goes without saying that in any organization there are some people who do not belong, but that does not relieve any misconduct, responsibility, or accountability of individuals and organizational leadership; due process and the statutes need to be lawfully enforced. The good police officers do not appreciate or condone egregious or deleterious conduct of a few officers who make decisions based on the inappropriate and unlawful use of their authority. Society demands that police officers use justifiably lawful means to apprehend and arrest a person violating the law and they are correct, however, rather than to react to a situation would it not be prudent to identify evidence and discern fact from the truth? When an athletic team loses many games who is responsible for the loss, the players, or the coach? Police leaders need to ensure police officers receive adequate training to know when they lawfully “May” use deadly force, but equally important is to train police officers skills that will provide confidence to realize when they “Should”. This is an underlying issue I utilize as a platform to argue the need for higher education, a liberal arts degree, for all police officers. Some law enforcement agencies scorn at the word liberal arts, asserting that police officers do not need philosophy, sociology, or any of the humanities. I emphatically disagree. We need police officers who can discern the difference between “may I should I”, to have empathy, to display human qualities, and work with, not against the community. The “may I should I” decision requires a utilitarian process manifest of a deontological perspective that takes account of the ramifications of the decision. In other words, confidence, self-efficacy, and self-esteem developed through extensive training predicated on higher education.

About Dr. Stephen Sherwin

Dr. Stephen L. Sherwin is Assistant Professor of Justice, Law and Public Safety Studies at Lewis University.

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