Boston Police officer shot, suspect killed: A case of justified deadly force?

Boston Police officer John T. Moynihan was shot in the line of duty on Friday night, leaving him critically injured. The suspected shooter was killed in a gun fight with police. 

Jim Michaud/The Boston Herald/AP
Investigators work near the scene of a shooting on Friday, March 27, 2015, in Boston.

Decorated Boston Police officer and military veteran John T. Moynihan was injured during a shoot-out in Roxbury on Friday night. His condition remains “critical,” according to Police Commissioner William Evans.

The officer was injured after pulling over a vehicle after reports of shots fired. As the officers approached the vehicle, a man exited and began shooting. The suspect, identified as 41-year-old Angelo West, was shot dead by police. He had a violent criminal history and multiple gun convictions, Evans said, reported The Boston Herald. Two other men in the car were arrested, one had a warrant and the other had an outstanding probation violation.

This is another shooting that underscores how dangerous police work can be, how police may feel under siege while at the same time the public is questioning the use of deadly force by police.

How often are police officers attacked? 

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, law enforcement fatalities have been on the rise in the last year. A preliminary report found that fatalities rose 24 percent in 2014, reversing the past two years in which declines were seen.

Last year, 126 federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial officers were killed in the line of duty. The number of officers killed by firearms rose by 56 percent from 2013. For the fifth year in a row, ambush-style attacks—such as the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos—were the No. 1 cause of felonious officer deaths.

As The Christian Science Monitor reports, police groups who track officer fatalities say events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and Madison, Wisc. – all places where white police officers killed unarmed black teenagers or men – may have helped to turn back those gains. Indeed, 2014 proved a particularly deadly year for police, with the number of officers shot rising back up to 50, with a record 15 of those coming from unprovoked or premeditated ambushes.

There's no indication at this point that Moynihan's shooting was premediated or a retaliatory ambush. 

The police video of Friday’s incident showed Moynihan approaching the driver's side of the car. As he reached the driver, Evans said that West allegedly shot Moynihan “point blank” in the face, then attempted to flee. He emptied a .357 magnum revolver while police returned fire, and eventually killed him.

District Attorney Daniel F. Conley's office will investigate the shooting, as required by state law.

"We will do this right, in a way that is completely transparent, thorough and ethical," Conley said, reported The Boston Herald.

At this point in the investigation, no one has questioned whether or not this was a justified use of deadly force.

But the national discussion continues about how and when deadly force should be used by police officers. Controversial cases such as that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and of Eric Garner in New York (among other cases) leave the public questioning what is or isn't excessive force.

In February, FBI Director James B. Comey said that one of the most difficult factors in trying to address the use of force is the lack of data around police action. According to Comey, demographic information behind officer-involved shootings is done a voluntary basis, and is therefore unreliable. He called for better data to analyze what is happening before the U.S. can take the proper actions to stop it. He said:

The first step to understanding what is really going on in our communities and in our country is to gather more and better data related to those we arrest, those we confront for breaking the law and jeopardizing public safety, and those who confront us . . . How can we address concerns about "use of force," how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents? We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities.

On Monday, the Justice Department released a report on the Philadelphia Police Department exploring that department’s use of deadly force. The report found that the number of police shootings against unarmed suspects is on the rise, going from 6 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2013. It also found that many officers believe “fear for one’s life” justifies the use of deadly force, even though it is not listed by the department as justification.

The preliminary findings of the report recommend enhanced police training regarding the use of deadly force and the usage of other strategies that can be implemented in high stress situations. Ronald Davis, the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said in the report:

“By deploying the basic elements of community policing—partnership development, problem-solving strategies, and organizational transformation—agencies are provided a roadmap to reform.”

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