Police Violence: What Crimes Deserve the ‘Death Penalty’?

At what point has someone committed an act so heinous that they deserve the death penalty? Is it when they set off bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, or when they run from the police officer that just pulled them over? Over the past few months and longer, there has been a lot on the news about police officers using excessive force that ends up killing an American citizen. Recently, there was an event where a cop, perused a man who ran from a car he pulled over, shot him multiple times in the back and then planted a taser on him so he could claim he feared for his life. People are saying that, if someone hadn’t been recording this event, the cop would have gotten away with it. I actually wonder if that was the nail in this guy’s coffin. Even with a camera recording, could he have gotten away with it if only he didn’t illegally plant evidence?

Police Violence

In my many discussions on recent issues involving America’s police force, there is one common refrain I hear coming from those who think nothing is going wrong. They say that these people are criminals. They are illegally selling cigarettes. They’ve stolen something from a gas station. They’ve run from police. These acts are against the law.

So what? Does that mean they deserved the death penalty?

I’ve listened to NPR cover the trial of the young man who, along with his brother, planned out an executed the Boston Marathon bombing. In one story, they spoke with many Boston locals about the death penalty and the fact that polls show most citizens of Boston are against the death penalty for this man. For the most part, people seemed to think the crime warranted the death penalty, but also felt the death penalty was wrong. If we’re not sure if someone who committed that violent of a crime should die, how can we claim someone who sells cigarettes illegally, but who is otherwise nonviolent, from a street corner deserves death?

You know what’s really funny to me. Maybe this is just because I grew up in small town Iowa, where there was little diversity, but I know a lot of people who have childhood stories of stealing things, trespassing in areas they weren’t allowed to go and so forth. Sometimes they were caught, but little more happened to them than a verbal reprimand. It’s such a different world from what I see on the television. Is it just that, living in a small town, cops were more likely to know who I was and make a judgement based, not only on my action, but on what they knew about my family?

I guess what I’m getting at is that I think minor crimes committed by these people I have seen die on the news do not call for the death penalty. They simply don’t appear to necessitate deadly force. Frankly, after what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t fault anyone for running from a cop.

I’m not sure what to do about this whole issue, honestly. Body cameras can certainly help, but I think the problem is more systemic, embedded in our society. The problem is that, inevitably, the news will fill hours about what the victim did wrong. Why did he or she run? Why was he or she doing something illegal? Were they doing even more illegal? I think these questions are particular shameful when they accused can’t speak for themselves. Moreover, I think it distracts from the issue. The issue is not that it’s illegal to run from cops, to be late on child support payments or anything else. The issue is that cops are unnecessarily using deadly force.

Our rights are only as good as the rights of the least of us. At the end of the day, I don’t think it would take much for most of us to commit a crime. If your life or the lives of your loved ones are put in enough jeopardy, I imagine there’s very little most of us wouldn’t do. Perhaps more important, any of us can be accused of a crime we didn’t commit. We should feel like the justice system is on the side of the truth and that those involved in law enforcement will withhold judgement until the day of our trial.

As it stands, I’m not sure what I think of law enforcement. Mostly, I think they are good people, but if I saw a police officer approaching me, even if I hadn’t done anything wrong, I would probably fill with fear. At the end of the day, I don’t have to do anything wrong,; I just have to be accused of ding something wrong.

What do you think of the recent news surrounding American’s police departments? What do you think needs to be changed? If a cop approached you right now, would you be unafraid?


Photo Copyright: lovleah / 123RF Stock Photo

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13 thoughts on “Police Violence: What Crimes Deserve the ‘Death Penalty’?”

    1. That’s what’s so frustrating. Just today, I saw a news story that one of the people killed by cops was caught selling illegal drugs just a few days earlier. Was he wrong for selling illegal drugs? Of course. Did he deserve the death penalty for that crime? Certainly not.

  1. Hi,
    its nice to see these issues being debated openly. I have a very simple answer actually, no crime no matter how awful justifies state sponsored murder. Far too many innocents die.

    As an interesting statistic for you did you know that U.S. cops shot more people in March 2015 than UK Police have shot since the year 1900?

    Admittedly the USA has around a five times larger population but even so the comparison is a stark one. The problem (in my view) lies in the USA’s attitude to guns and the gun lobby is so strong that there isn’t much chance of it changing.

    My son is 17 years old and wants to live and work abroad in the future. The Country I most fear him going to is the USA

    1. I am personally always against the death penalty, but I think most people in America are in favor of it for really bad crimes. Certainly the minor crimes don’t deserve that though.

      I haven’t spent a huge amount of time outside of the USA, but when I have, I look on the country in a completely different way. We’re a little nuts.

  2. Great piece! I think it is a shame. I respect law officials, but as a mother, it breaks my heart to think that my son will be gunned down and accused of a crime instead of being tried in the court in which my taxes pay. I think that ALL questionable deaths should require federal investigation to stop the systematic covering up of officers who do wrong. We can’t allow the people we trust and pay to have a secret brotherhood that allows murderers to go free just because they wear a badge.

    1. One comment on here said something about police officers being taught military-level discipline and likewise punishment when something goes wrong. Maybe that would fix things a little bit. In the end, I think this issue is far more complex than any one thing. It’s not just race, education or training. The biggest problem of all is that we live in an environment where police fear citizens and citizen fear police (in general). That is just asking for problems.

  3. If a cop approached me right now, I would be LESS afraid than I would have been in the same situation a few years ago, but that is only because I live in a different town, in a different state. I have no personal reason to be afraid of the police HERE, but sometimes I have trouble remembering that.

    In a city where I used to live, I was stopped frequently for the “crime” of walking with a limp. (I use a cane sometimes; I’m disabled.) Apparently this is “suspicious behavior” in anyone under the age of 50, but it kept happening again and again, in the same place and on the same day of the week, even though you’d think that eventually the cop in question would have gotten used to seeing me and remembered that I’m just a “useless cripple,” not a violent criminal. ‘Yes, officer, I’m on my way to a book club meeting. We meet right over there at that shop. You can ask the shop owner — she’s expecting me.’ (It was actually a writers’ group meeting, but Michelle knew about the police harassing me every week, so she was quite willing to…shade the truth, to prevent me from getting arrested for writing science fiction. It was that kind of place.)

    1. That’s stupid. Why should anyone harass you. I grew up in a small town and I didn’t fear police there. I feel like, in an ideal world, I should have to know a police officer in order to have no fear of them. If anything, police should be a comfort to anyone who hasn’t committed a crime. And, to those who have committed a crime, they shouldn’t fear that they will be unjustly beat up or killed. They deserve their day in court.

  4. A lot of the debate about the recent insidents has treated the problem as a single issue, but I think there are actually two issues at play here. One is race and the fact that the overwhelming majority of these incidents involve people of color. Often overlooked is that these issues shouldn’t be happening at all, to anyone. I appreciate your post talking about the problem without bringing race into it, not because it isn’t a problem, but because it is a seperate issue.

    Long before the recent issues came to light, I was wary of law enforcement. My experience in the military taught me that is you give somebody some extra power and responsibility, they will quickly develop a superiority complex. It is the job of the officers and non-commissioned officers to keep that attitude in check. Failure to do so will result in abuses that bring shame on the profession, like Abu Ghraib. My problem with law enforcement is that when an officer makes a mistake, they frequently blame the victim instead of enforcing the dicipline needed for a position that is allowed to use force. Instead of holding our officers to a higher standard based on their powers and responsibilities, too often they are treated as exceptional citizens that are above the law. The police officer is considered more important than the people he is policing. Perhaps this is what the military would be like if they had a union, but the military drills the importance of the state and the service over the individual. I wish law enforcement would do the same. We’ve all seen pictures of the police using military gear and weapons, it would be nice if they could use some of that discipline as well. Police officers have a difficult job, but the reluctance of the profession to hold themselves to a high standard is hurting them.

    1. You are my favorite comment! I’ve never thought of the police force having the discipline and strictness of the military, but I like the idea.

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