Reasonable Belief

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

In the past few weeks, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General issued updated guidance as it relates to police and use of force. The 28-page document is detailed and covers many areas. I am surprised at how lengthy it is and the level of detail involved. It’s a good document, but like anything that seeks to define and organize something that occurs in an instant and is all about adrenaline, emotion, instinct, and fear, it’s necessarily clinical.

To use one example, the guidance rightly spells out that officers should use “the least amount of force that is objectively reasonable, necessary and proportional to safely achieve the legitimate law enforcement objective under the circumstances.” That might be easy enough to apply in some situations and certainly in hindsight, but maybe not so much in the heat of a moment.

This is worth noting because in this same document, the guidance discusses “reasonable belief,” which is defined as “an objective assessment based upon an evaluation of how a reasonable officer with comparable training and experience would react to, or draw inferences from, the facts and circumstances confronting and known by the officer at the scene.”

The hardest parts of this come down to “objective” and “reasonable.” The idea of objective information makes me think of such fields as math and science and the idea that there can be a given set of facts or data that everyone would agree is true. But in an age of “alternative facts” and at a time when experts and authorities are dismissed as having an agenda or being part of a deep state, I’m not so sure “objective” is available to us anymore.

That leaves us with the weak link of “reasonable belief.” Discussions about “reasonable belief” can be situational, but I’m thinking about what one person or group reasonably believes about another. To someone who believes, whether on the tip of the tongue or deep beneath the surface, that people from one racial or ethnic group are inherently more dangerous or violent than people of another group, then employing whatever amount of force is used might well seem “reasonable” no matter the circumstance.

It’s true that the guidance addresses this when it says “In carrying out their duties as guardians of public safety, officers shall at all times treat every person equally without regard to the individual’s actual or perceived race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, civil union status, domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, genetic information, sex, gender identity or expression, disability, nationality, familial status, or any other protected characteristic under N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq.”

But the issues playing out on our streets aren’t due to a lack of guidance or even training, but issues of screening. Training can’t overcome a lifetime of believing that this group or that group is inherently more dangerous or violent than another. In the heat of the moment what kicks in is someone’s “reasonable belief,” built over years about the world and the people in it, whether reasonable or unreasonable.

“Reasonable belief” is a weak link because in many instances of excessive and deadly force in the last few years, those involved believed the force they used was “reasonable,” maybe not because of what was happening but because of who was involved.

If there are ways to get to someone’s “reasonable beliefs” in the broadest sense prior to them taking on this most difficult job, it might help eliminate the tragedies destroying this part of our social fabric.

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