The Quest for Perfection in Policing

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

To err is human says the poet, but nothing less than perfection is allowed for today’s police officers.

It seems that the notions of probable cause and reasonable suspicion have been replaced by standards of certainty previously expected only of juries. With the spread of the elimination of qualified immunity, police officers are increasingly expected to enter violent, chaotic circumstances and make the perfect decision every time.

There is, of course, a high expectation because stakes are often high. In war, there is tolerance for collateral damage in combat operations. In violent encounters involving our police officers, there is little allowance for error. The courts have consistently abided by Constitutional guidelines of reasonableness. This standard doesn’t require perfection. It requires that a reasonable person, with the same knowledge as the person being judged, would find the action as within the range of normal.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt (not beyond a shadow of a doubt), is required for conviction of a crime. Probable cause basically means that a thing is more likely than not and is necessary for an arrest or the issuance of a search warrant. Reasonable suspicion means that behavior or circumstances would arouse an informed observer’s belief that something deserves further investigation because of its association with illicit behavior.

All this means that police officers must always act reasonably, but that includes the possibility of being wrong. The reality of human limitation will result in unfortunate outcomes. Heart surgery has a 6% risk of death. The death rate for vehicle crashes is 11 fatalities for every 100,000 persons, roughly .001 percent. The Center for Disease Control reports that Over 76 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through March 1, 2021. During this time they received 1,381 reports of death (0.0018%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine. An interesting disclaimer states that no direct cause of death should be implied. There is a chance that a death will occur while in flight at a rate of  0.005 per 100,000 flight hours. Although contested, the figure of 400,000 has been used in calculating deaths related to medical errors.

Let’s cipher from estimates from police-involved deaths. At approximately 1000 deaths per year among 750000 law enforcement officers and assuming an average of one contact per day by 500,000 of those officers, we can estimate that citizens are contacted by police at a rate of over 17 million times per year. This results in a very liberal estimate of the chance of being killed by a police officer in any given year is .001 percent. This even includes fighting with an officer, confronting an officer with a weapon, and being arrested for a felony since studies show that officers use great restraint in utilizing deadly force.

Back in the 70s one of the trendy management programs to improve industrial efficiency was called Zero Defects. Anyone who has worked for the government or corporate America has survived some of these kinds of motivational programs. Lapel pins, posters, slogans, t-shirts, and educational videos encourage teamwork, pride, and productivity. Zero Defects was like that. The idea of making no mistakes was an idealistic goal with the hope that workers would improve quality and profits. In industry, we’ve seen quality improvement plans of one stripe or another. Some are very complex, and some are of the bumper sticker variety. While many management programs have been borrowed from industry and applied to law enforcement, the pursuit of perfection is not an assembly line process.

There are many protections for citizens to encourage proficiency and accuracy in policing. Police officers do not want to make contacts, searches, and arrests that will not be successfully prosecuted. Therefore, in addition to the multitude of laws, department regulations, and court decisions that guide their behavior, the threat of losing a case or having a case refused by the prosecutor is a powerful incentive for quality work. This is on top of the threats of lawsuit and criminal prosecution for misconduct. One bad case can effectively ruin a career if an officer’s credibility means no case they are involved in will be prosecuted.

Can policing achieve zero defect performance? It is a great goal, but simply not possible given the inherent unpredictability of the job.

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