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Is it Necessary for Police to Kill So Often?

Posted on Jul 24, 2013

The Milwaukee Police Department is currently investigating two isolated incidents, which took place within a one-week time frame in late April 2013, where veteran police officers shot and killed suspects who were armed with knives and threatening the lives of family members.

In the first confrontation, police were called by a relative of 45-year-old James Coleman after he threatened to kill a family member and himself. When police arrived, Coleman had already lacerated his own wrists with a large kitchen knife. He then refused to drop the weapon and advanced toward the officers before shots were fired.

According to Coleman’s aunt, Nancy Coleman, who witnessed the altercation, police fired four consecutive shots at Coleman before members of the Milwaukee Fire Department tried, unsuccessfully, to treat his injuries.

It is also worth noting that Coleman took several pills that night which may have impaired his judgment. Alonzo Macklin, his uncle, believed that Coleman was merely in need of some mental help and didn’t deserve to be shot.

“James is a good person. He’s a kind-hearted person. He would do anything he could for anybody, but James has a mental problem,” Macklin told Fox 6.

The second incident transpired much like the first as police received word that a 46-year-old Milwaukee man was wielding two knives and threatening to kill a relative. Again, the suspect refused to drop the knives and advanced toward the officers before shots were fired.

Later that night, the suspect/victim died at the scene due to his injuries. The MPD has revealed that he had a prior history of violence against family members.

In both cases, neighbors and witnesses have been critical of law enforcement for electing not to use a stun gun. Since the suspects/victims were only armed with knives, they believe that the officers had no reason to feel threatened to the point of using deadly force. As a result, all officers involved in these altercations have been placed on administrative duty in accordance with standard operating procedure.

Approximately one year ago, veteran police officer Richard Schoen was fired after he was caught on camera punching a handcuffed female several times, dragging her out of a squad car by her hair and sliding her into a trash can on the floor. Although the female victim was deemed “combative,” Police Chief Edward Flynn fired him citing the department’s code of conduct, which states, “We use the minimum force and authority necessary to accomplish a proper police purpose.”

However, Schoen eluded criminal charges and was even temporarily rehired seven months later before that decision was reversed.  An eerily similar incident occurred in 2009 when a Milwaukee Country Sheriff also punched a handcuffed suspect. This time, the Sheriff was not only fired, but also charged with a felony by the District Attorney, the same one who elected not to charge Schoen.

These two cases raise the question of what (if anything) will/should happen to the police officers who shot and killed the men who were armed with only knives. If two police officers were fired, and one criminally charged, for failing to “use the minimum force and authority necessary to accomplish a proper police purpose,” then what should the repercussions be for the officers who killed a man they could have subdued with a stun gun, shot in the leg or used less lethal means?

Furthermore, why did police have to shoot so many times? And how far away were the police from the subjects they shot? These questions are certainly worthy of consideration.

Historically, police haven’t always been able to get off scot free. In 1958, police officer Thomas Grady was initially found of no wrong doing after fatally shooting victim Daniel Bell in the back. Grady claimed that he shot Bell out of self-defense, which was corroborated by the fact that Bell was found holding a knife.

Nearly twenty years later, Grady’s partner came forward and revealed that Grady planted the knife on Bell and that the two of them lied about what happened. Grady was then charged and pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and perjury. The personal injury law firm of Hupy and Abraham subsequently represented Bell’s family members in a lawsuit and obtained financial compensation for their loss.

Hupy and Abraham also filed suit in a more recent precedent, which still stands as the largest police brutality case in Wisconsin history. In 2003, Milwaukee Police Officer Kevin Clark arrested a man named Curtis Harris for a routine “disorderly conduct” charge. Harris, who was fully cooperative, was taken back to the Police Station where video surveillance footage showed Clark slamming Harris into a concrete wall, rendering him a quadriplegic. The case eventually settled for $3 million but Clark was fired for an unrelated incident and was never charged by the district attorney.

Aside from the $3 million payout for Harris’s injuries, no other disciplinary action was taken against Clark or any of the other officers involved. But in the unrelated incident that got Clark fired, a total of three officers lost their jobs.

In 2004, Clark and other officers went sledding while on duty. Clark crashed his sled and broke several ribs but claimed that the injury occurred while pursuing a burglar. Once the scam was exposed, a sergeant was convicted of misconduct in public office and resigned while another officer was convicted of obstructing justice and fired. As for Clark, he was fired and fined $500 after collecting over $11,000 in workers compensation. So in the end, the MPD took more disciplinary action for insurance fraud than paralyzing someone.

Whether the officers involved in the 2013 incidents will be criminally charged, or even reprimanded, is difficult to determine. Recent and historic examples suggest that Milwaukee Police officers will almost always receive the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, it is important that Police officers are held accountable and adhere to their “minimum force” policy.