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Clay Wants To Clamp Down On Deadly Force By Police

U.S. Reps. Lacy Clay, D-University City, and Ro Khanna, D-Calif.
Nick Telep I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Reps. Lacy Clay, D-University City, left, and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., say they plan to introduce legislation intended to reduce the use of deadly force by law enforcement.

Federal law enforcement officers would have less latitude to use deadly force under a bill U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay plans to introduce. 

Clay, D-University City, wants to raise the threshold for when it is acceptable for federal officers to kill a person in confrontations. He said that other tactics — such as de-escalation strategies — should be employed first, and that deadly force should only be used as a last resort.

Through his bill, Clay would also try to force state and local law enforcement agencies to adopt higher standards for engaging in deadly force.

The legislation will call for federal funding to be withheld from local police departments and sheriffs who refuse to raise the bar for shooting or otherwise harming suspects during a confrontation, he said. States would have some discretion on what types of punishments would be in place for not meeting the higher standards. 

The bill has not been formally introduced yet, and the specifics of the proposal were still unknown Friday afternoon. Another sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said the bill has already been drafted, but a copy of it wasn’t provided at a press conference in St. Louis that both elected officials attended Friday. 

“We haven’t really rolled it out yet,” Clay said. 

The leader of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association has already announced his opposition to the bill. 

“The proposed legislation seems ignorant of the reality of the situation in which force is necessary. Situations escalate in seconds, and law enforcement are often called to the scene of already volatile situations,” said Nathan Catura, president of the organization.  

Clay held the press conference about his deadly force proposal on the fifth anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson by a police officer.   

“We’ve learned the names of black men and women that should not have to be known solely because of their deaths by law enforcement: Mike Brown, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and far too many others,” Clay said.

Khanna said many European and industrialized nations have a much higher threshold for deadly force by law enforcement than the United States does. But Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who studies high-risk police activities, said that's not an apples-to-apples comparison.

“It’s hard to compare, because I don’t know many countries that have guns the way America does,” Alpert said. “Not everyone [in other countries] has a gun.” 

Alpert did find Clay’s proposal interesting because it deals with federal law enforcement officers, who haven’t been forthcoming about their use-of-force policies. State and local officers have far more restrictive policies and face far more scrutiny when it comes to the use of deadly force, he said.

“A lot of state and local departments are far more transparent than federal agencies,” Alpert said. “Local officers have to wear body cameras, and the feds don’t.”   

What people think is an acceptable use of force also tends to be subjective — potentially making it a difficult subject to legislate. 

“There is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of use of force,” according to the website for the National Institute of Justice, a research sector of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The St. Louis and St. Louis County police departments say officers can shoot someone to “protect themselves or others from what is reasonably believed to be an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury.” 

Clay was optimistic about his legislation picking up support in the House, but made no promises that the legislation could clear the Republican-controlled Senate.

Follow Julie on Twitter: @jsodonoghue

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