Analysis: Police use of deadly force could be solved by technology

Editor’s Note: Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama.

Story highlights

New weapons could potentially incapacitate suspects -- electricity, drugs, chemical inhalants, extreme sounds or blunt force

American scientists and inventors need to take the critical next step

CNN  — 

Now that more controversial videos have surfaced of police killing American citizens, some experts are asking a different question: Will police always need deadly force?

In a country with more than 700,000 sworn law enforcement personnel, some degree of human error, bias and misconduct are inevitable. Better training and additional oversight will never completely solve this.

But maybe science can. Perhaps this is an engineering challenge as much as it is behavioral one.

If we can reach the point when suspects can be quickly incapacitated without being killed, that eliminates the need for deadly force. There is no scenario in which killing a suspect is necessary if making that individual unconscious or immobile would resolve the incident.

Just last year, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended “the development of new ‘less than lethal’ technology to help control combative suspects.” If American scientists and inventors can take the critical next step, deciding whether criminals live or die could eventually become the sole responsibility of judges and juries, not cops. Too often, deadly force is used when the victim is not even a criminal.

There are many ways a new weapon could potentially incapacitate suspects, including electricity, drugs, chemical inhalants, extreme sounds or blunt force.

Tasers might do the job if their range and reliability could be improved. New drugs or inhalants may be able to render people unconscious for handcuffing, and then they could be administered an antidote. The U.S. Navy has funded research on a nonlethal weapon that uses radio frequencies to “interrupt the normal process of human hearing and equilibrium” to cause instant and extreme motion sickness.

Alternative Ballistics, a California based weapons-tech company, has designed a golf-ball sized metal alloy that travels at approximately one-fifth the speed of a bullet. Its creators, who received some interest from the Ferguson Police Department after the shooting of Michael Brown, suggest it feels like someone hitting you in the chest with a hammer.

The medical expert I spoke with suggested this would definitely slow a suspect down. In rare cases it could be fatal, but the same could be said for Tasers, batons, or as Eric Garner’s family can attest, bare hands. The key is reducing lethality.

One likely result of a less than lethal approach would be a major reduction in the racial tensions associated with police use of force. Those who feel they have been mistreated by law enforcement would survive to have their day in court. Bias and discrimination will still exist, but the stakes will be significantly lower. Debates will surround arrest patterns and sentencing disparities, not unarmed teenagers lying dead in the street.

Taxpayers would appreciate the change as well, because they have spent decades financing improper police shootings. It cost them $3 million in the Amadou Diallo case, $4.7 million for Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, $5.9 million for Eric Garner, and $6.4 million for Freddie Gray. These are only a few of the many examples, and there is no clear limit in sight. Recent wrongful death lawsuits have been filed for as much as $75 million.

Another benefit is that once police no longer shoot to kill, that would be the end of suicide-by-cop. Broadly speaking, this will be healthy for society: when people provoke the police to kill them, it can traumatize both the officers and the community members who witness the violent deaths.

In addition, by solely employing less-lethal means, law enforcement may actually deter some mass shooters. For example, attackers who claim to be inspired by ISIS and other radical Islamist ideologies are typically unwilling to commit suicide by shooting themselves.

Instead, many count on being killed by their enemies, which they believe will make them “martyrs.” Based on the cases I have studied, suicide-by-cop is one of their most common exit strategies. Ironically, then, the police who killed the Orlando and San Bernardino attackers after they refused to surrender may have given them exactly what they wanted. Once future mass shooters realize they will not be killed by police and will have to face the consequences of their crimes, some may reconsider attacking in the first place.

Also benefiting will be the early investors in whichever weapons ultimately replace police firearms. Again, this is a science and engineering challenge, and is thus subject to all of the private sector incentives that fuel research and development in other industries, such as medicine, energy, automobiles and high tech.

Taser International did more than $500 million in revenue from 2013 to 2015, and saw its annual profit rise each year.

When police first give up their ability to shoot to kill, many will object. Some may argue that the change gives criminals the advantage. Police-suspect encounters will become asymmetric conflict: They can kill us, but we cannot kill them. That is true. But law enforcement officers and criminals have always been expected to adhere to different standards. If police want to see more violent criminals die, they have a vote, the opportunity to serve on juries, and the right to advocate for or against the death penalty, like the rest of us. Arrest the suspects, and then work within the system.

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    For context, it helps to remember that some officers also complained that reading suspects their Miranda rights would make interrogations impossible, and that the Tennessee v. Garner ruling that effectively outlawed shooting fleeing felons in the back would encourage all felons to flee. But police adjusted and the benefits of these changes became widely accepted.

    Once they see that newly developed less-lethal technology can quickly incapacitate a suspect, most police officers will adjust again.

    Their job will have significantly improved because their mistakes will be far less likely to carry fatal consequences. Public anger against law enforcement will lose some of its nasty edge. And officers will no longer be stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” of risking their career and jail if they shoot too early, and risking their lives if they shoot too late.

    Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama.