Why police use of deadly force does not equate to intend to kill
Law enforcement officers do not use deadly force to kill, they use deadly force to stop or apprehend
It is understood that as a law enforcement officer you may be forced to take a life to save a life. In a situation where an officer has made the decision to use deadly force, the suspect is doing something that is causing an imminent/significant threat to life and the officer must immediately stop those actions. Law enforcement officers do not shoot to kill, nor do they shoot to wound. An officer’s intention when using deadly force is to stop or apprehend.
The St. Louis Police Department case involving former officer Jason Stockley is an example of why I have always contended that police officers should not intend to kill when taking deadly force actions.
On December 20, 2011, Stockley and his partner, Brian Bianchi, tried to stop Anthony Lamar Smith after witnessing a suspected drug transaction in a restaurant parking lot.
As the officers drove up, Smith initially drove forward into a wall, but then backed into the patrol car as the officers were exiting. Smith then pulled forward again as the officers approached the vehicle on foot, Bianchi on the driver side and Stockley on the passenger side.
Smith stopped the car momentarily and then reversed back into the patrol car again with the officers still on each side of the car. As the car backed up this time, the front-end swing of the car narrowly missed Stockley.
Smith then pulled forward and accelerated the vehicle, which in turn brushed Stockley, knocking him sideways. Stockley ran after the car for a short distance and fired his department-issued weapon at the vehicle as it sped away.
Bianchi went back to the police vehicle and drove forward to pick up Stockley. The officers then pursued Smith for approximately 2.5 minutes. During the last part of the pursuit, police dash cam video records Stockley saying, “We’re killing this mother****, don’t you know.”
Bianchi ended the pursuit by ramming Smith’s vehicle. Both officers ran immediately to the driver’s side front door. Stockley fired multiple rounds at Smith, killing him. Stockley told internal affairs investigators he believed Smith was reaching for a handgun.
Homicide detectives later determined the shooting was justifiable. In 2013, the year Stockley left the St. Louis Police Department, the Board of Police Commissioners settled a wrongful death suit with Smith's family for $900,000.
The prosecution and premeditation
In May 2016 prosecutors charged Stockley with murder in the first degree, which requires the State of Missouri to prove that a defendant knowingly caused the death of another person after deliberation upon the matter.
Prosecutors allege that Stockley was recorded on an internal camera during a high-speed pursuit saying he intended to kill Smith. A Grand Jury indicted Stockley in August.
Deliberation means cool reflection for any length of time, no matter how brief. Evidence of deliberation was presented at trial through Stockley’s own statement. At 12:41:30 in the dash camera video, Stockley tells his partner, “We’re killing this mother****, don’t you know.” Forty-five seconds later, he fatally shot Smith.
The trial started on August 1, 2017. After the trial ended, the judge took several weeks to review the evidence prior to declaring a verdict.
Not guilty verdict
On September 15, 2017, Judge Timothy Wilson found Stockley not guilty of first-degree murder. Judge Wilson wrote, "This Court, in conscience, cannot say that the State has proven every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, or that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense."
A major part of the prosecution’s case in chief was Stockley’s statement, which to them indicated a premeditated intent to kill. As to the statement made by Stockley, the judge said, “People say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment or while in stressful situations.” While I agree with this judge that this could be a plausible explanation, the prosecutors obviously did not.
To be clear, I am not saying that Stockley intended to kill Smith. I am saying that his statement gave the prosecutors reason to believe he did. I know that some people will disagree with my opinion on this and call it only semantics, and that is understandable. For those who disregard this as only semantics, they should put themselves in Stockley’s position of having to go through the ordeal of being charged and tried for a crime that could have landed him in prison for a long time.
A police officer’s intent
An officer should not have the intent to kill while using deadly force. Again, the intent of the officer’s deadly force response is to stop the threat. Whether the suspect dies from the wounds or not is completely irrelevant.
In today’s digital world, the mere utterance of anything that resembles intent to kill a suspect – regardless if the statement is made in the heat of the moment or not – can result in an appearance of intent to kill.
As trainers, we can work on this through not only during educational awareness training, but also during scenario-based, stress-inoculation training. During force-on-force training or even pursuit training, we should monitor and correct any potential concerns that arise.
Getting police officers to understand the benefits of keeping our emotions in check during stressful situations is key to not crossing any lines and then having to defend ourselves for statements that should have never happened.