My dogs can be trained to think. Why can't police officers?

Recently, my wife and I decided that some training would be a wise investment for our dogs, Zelda and Yoda. They're both very sweet and generally well-behaved dogs, but they had some areas where they needed work and we were becoming frustrated at our lack of progress. Zelda, our 3-year-old female, is calm but can be strong-willed and stubborn. Yoda, our 2½-year-old male, is incredibly sweet, but gets anxious around other dogs or when there's a lot of commotion. We knew that of the two, he'd require more work.

Right away, our trainer started showing strategies we could employ to calm Yoda down when he's near other dogs. She introduced a well-trained dog to the room, and Yoda was predictably anxious. She did some drills with him, and after about five minutes he'd calmed down significantly and was able to meet the other dog. She noted Yoda's calm state of mind, saying,

"See, this is good. He's thinking. When he's nervous, he's reacting, and that's when the aggression can start. We want the dogs to be calm enough to think through the situation."


In subsequent days the Philando Castile verdict was in the news. Despite all indications that he complied with the police officer's instructions, Castile was shot four times at point-blank (the officer discharged his firearm seven times total, despite a woman and child being in the car). For the few who seem to support the jury's bizarre acquittal, the argument is a familiar one: that police officers need broad leeway to react to a threat, whether real or imagined, in order to protect their lives and the lives of others.

Yoda, one of my dogs

This is the same justification that excused the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by a police officer who thought that Rice's toy gun was real. Rice was shot within seconds of the officers' arrival on scene, and without being warned to drop the (toy) gun. It's the same justification that excused the killing of John Crawford III, who was gunned down by police officers after he picked up a BB gun that was on sale in a Walmart.

In all of these circumstances, we see officers reacting to imaginary threats. They hastily reacted with lethal force, ending the life of innocent people (including a child) and inflicting unspeakable tragedy on their friends and family.

It's understandable that police officers can and do face grave, life-threatening situations and must be prepared to react accordingly. But if there is no accountability for their actions, then we have functionally given police officers virtually unlimited power to act with impunity as judge, jury, and executioner. Logically, there must be checks and balances on the use of lethal force.

My dog could be trained to stay calm and think through a stressful situation. Until he had been trained to stay calm, Yoda's anxiety could result in aggression toward other dogs; after just a bit of training, he's remarkably more confident around both other animals and people. Why do we not hold officers of the law to the same standard that I hold my dog? Why do we, as a society, seem resistant to the idea that a police officer should be trained to stay calm in a stressful situation and avoid the use of deadly force except as a last resort?

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