“After an officer involved shooting or any tragic event, can the police say sorry?” It was an intriguing question. This question stemmed from a discussion about how police are portrayed by the news media. The person who asked the question is from a country where it is culturally important to say “sorry” if something bad happens. For example, if a major bank went bankrupt, an apology is what you’d likely hear from the CEO. A stark contrast to what you would see here in the United States. Good, bad, or otherwise, this made me think about the culture of apologies – or the seeming lack thereof – here in the United States.
Naturally, I tried to remember an incident where a Chief or someone representing a police department apologized for something that took place. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of an instance that resonated with me. Lo and behold, later that week I was reading an article where the Chicago Police Chief offered his condolences and apologized after an officer involved shooting. To my surprise, a quick internet search of the words, “Police Chief sorry” or “Police shooting apology” actually returned quite a few results. The apologies stemmed from incidents ranging from arrests to officer involved shootings.
Upon finding multiple instances of apologies by police departments, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was unable to respond to the question with a confident, “Yes, police apologize when bad things happen.” If a quick internet search disproves the notion that police never apologize, why does it seem like they never do? Personally, I was surprised by this and thought maybe he was on to something. Maybe if police apologized more, society would see police as more humane? Maybe there would be less animosity in some neighborhoods? Maybe not?
We theorized that the seeming lack of apologies could be related to legal liability. Jumping in front of news cameras and immediately saying “sorry” implies guilt or wrong doing. Nearly all police involved shootings result in a civil wrongful death lawsuit, justified or not. Even if the officer acted in accordance with the law and departmental policies, a payout of hundreds of thousands of dollars is common and likely. Do apologies increase their liability?
Another likely reason people don’t associate the police with apologies is because apologies are not what you see in the headlines. If you search the internet for instances where apologies are issued, they are usually after the initial incident or in the body of the article, not the headline. This is problematic as it seems so many people these days ONLY read headlines, form an opinion, and immediately begin their social media tirade. So if all you ever see are headlines that read, “Officer involved shooting leaves man dead.” It’s understandable you would miss the fact the Chief offered an apology during the press conference.
Further silencing the police, the officer(s) involved in the shooting can’t speak about the shooting while it is under investigation. Most certainly not to the news media. Naturally an apology from the officer who actually did the shooting could really resonate with the public. However, it is inadvisable for legal reasons. Let’s not forget, a police involved shooting is still considered an aggravated assault or murder and they are investigated as such. As much as that officer may want to publicly say sorry, no lawyer in the world would allow it. Police officers have legal rights afforded to them after a shooting just like any citizen who shot someone in self-defense would. Ultimately, it is still up to the grand jury to determine if charges are necessary and subsequently a jury to decide guilt or innocence if such charges are filed.
What is unfortunate from an empathy standpoint, is the fact that police are kept silent for their legal protection. It dehumanizes them and insinuates that police officers lack sympathy or empathy for what happened. If you never hear an apology, over time, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to surmise that police officers aren’t sorry for shooting people. Just because you never hear it, does not mean that is how officers feel.
Personally, I was lucky and never used deadly force despite the multiple times I was justified to use it throughout my career. That being said, I would bet that every single officer who has been involved in a fatal police shooting, wishes it didn’t happen. Nothing good comes of being involved in a shooting. There are nightmares, sleepless nights, constant stress and worry about the grand jury referral, not to mention the financial impact it can have on them. If an officer is on administrative leave, that generally means they cannot work overtime or off-duty jobs to supplement their income. Many officers I worked with had regular “extra jobs” they would work while off-duty to supplement their income. A shooting does nothing to help them financially and could really put them in a bind depending on their family situation.
As I have said many times already in my articles, police officers are human beings. They are not robots. They are not programmed to do a job and end threats with precision and perfection. They are human beings, who make split second decisions based on the situations they are presented with day in and day out. No human being wants to take another life. Period. Officers are forced into these situations. Police officers are 100% reactionary when it comes to their use of force options. If the “suspect” turns around and puts their hands behind their back, you will never hear about that arrest because the “suspect” CHOSE to comply. The arrest is over and nothing bad happens. This is how everyone wants any police incident to end, including the police.
On the contrary, if the suspect resists, fights, or points a weapon at the officer, you will likely read about the aftermath in the news. This isn’t rocket science, it is simple cause and effect where the suspect is ultimately in control of how the incident plays out. Yes, there are shootings that are not justified. The shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina is an example of a horrible police shooting. Consequently, the officer was convicted and is serving a 20 year prison sentence, rightfully so. On August 28, 2018, a policer officer from Balch Springs, Texas was found guilty of murder. It does happen and will likely happen more in the future due to video being readily available during nearly all police and citizen interactions.
Sadly, police officers will make mistakes and police officers will continue to go to prison. This is the new normal police officers have to accept. Years ago, grand juries made deicsions based on witness testimony and the officer’s statements. In the past, accounts of what happened generally led to a no-bill from the grand jury (meaning the officer won’t be charged with a crime) or an innocent verdict if they did go to trial. In today’s world of law enforcement, we can review a shooting like it’s a play in a professional sporting event. What happens in mere seconds can be broken down second by second, frame by frame, and eventually a decision is made as to whether it was justified. Things have changed and any mistakes like the ones in South Carolina and Balch Springs, Texas can and will likely result in a prison sentence. A bad day at the office could cost you 20 years of your life maybe longer. The job of being a police officer was always difficult, you’d be hard pressed to convince me it isn’t harder today than ever before. Perfection or prison.
Back to the original question at hand.
Can police say sorry?
Yes they can. And I bet they would do it more if they could.
Thank an officer today.
-The Officer Next Door