By Chris Simmons
On May 24th, a Purcellville [Virginia] police officer shot and killed Christian Sierra – a depressed High School student they had been summoned to help.
The 17-year old was at a neighbor’s house when he began threatening suicide. He subsequently cut himself and the police were called. Armed with a knife as he stood alone in the street, Sierra lunged at the first police officer to arrive. The officer responded by shooting and killing the boy.
Why wasn’t non-lethal force used? The police have several non-lethal tools available for use – the old-school nightstick, an ASP – a solid steel expandable baton ranging in length from 16-26 inches, tasers, pepper spray, and so forth.
In my opinion, in this encounter, the police officer CANNOT claim self-defense. The officer knew Christian Sierra was armed with a knife before exiting the safety of the police cruiser. Given the array of non-lethal weapons readily available for use, the troubled teen could have been quickly and safely subdued.
It is important to understand that by drawing his/her weapon, the officer actually raised the probability of a fatal encounter. Psychologically, aiming a gun at a knife-wielding individual often prompts the person’s “Freeze, Fight, Flight” response to favor the Fight option. In general, the escalation spiral will have already rendered the Freeze/surrender option highly unlikely. Flight is not an option as many individuals believe a police office will shoot them even if they turn and run. Thus, to survive, a person may feel they must attack.
In a gun vs. knife scenario, the psychological dynamic can be very deceptive. A knife-wielding individual might envision four possible outcomes: the police officer could freeze and not fire, the officer might miss, the individual could be wounded, or he/she could be killed. Fueled by adrenaline, it becomes easy for an emotional individual – or in this case, a troubled teenager, to misjudge the likelihood of a favorable outcome.
Contrast that thinking against the very accurate psychological response when non-lethal force is clearly going to be used. Witnessing an officer extend a two-foot long ASP, a knife-wielding individual will likely conclude that the officer will disarm them by using the metal baton to break their hand, wrist or arm. The use of a non-lethal option is, in effect, a proportional response favoring the police as it capitalizes on the weapon’s extended range and the frailty of human bones.
Even a distraught person generally understands that a police officer will not be afraid to use their baton, nor is it likely he/she will miss. As such, the individual will commonly concludes one of three outcomes are likely: surrender immediately to avoid excruciating pain, undergo bone-breaking injuries, or risk sustaining a fatal blow to the head or a vital organ. In this situation, it’s hard to misjudge the likely outcome. More importantly, even if the individual does err in judgment, their forthcoming wounds would rarely be life-threatening.
I believe the death of Christian Sierra was probably both preventable and unnecessary. I experienced many tense situations during 24 months in war zones around the world, so I empathize with the stress under which the police operate. That said, the soldiers with whom I so proudly served never killed anyone when the means and opportunity to capture/subdue them existed. Citizens should expect the same standards from their police.