Opinion: In police shootings: Legality, morality and ethics are not the same

Legal justification is not ethical or moral equivalency — that is the first principle I teach in my ethics class to collegiate criminal justice majors. For example, early in my career as a prosecutor, adults of the same sex could be arrested, prosecuted, and jailed for engaging in consensual sexual acts with a person of the same sex. Albeit legally justified, those arrests and prosecutions could not withstand ethical and moral scrutiny, even then.

The shooting of the Georgia Tech student by the Georgia Tech police officer is an example of a legally justified act that deserves ethical examination. The law is clear. An officer is justified in using deadly force if the officer reasonably believes said force is necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury to himself or a third person. As a prosecutor, I investigated over a dozen police shootings. As a defense attorney, I defended an Atlanta police officer charged in a shooting involving similar circumstances. The jury had no problem reaching an acquittal. Much deference is given to police officers in these situations.

The ethicist would ask if there is another way to protect the officer without great harm or death to the student, and the answer is, “Yes!” First, it is obvious this was a student in need of help. He never uttered threatening words to the officer. Exactly the opposite. The student begged the officer, “Shoot me!” A person trained to deal with mental health issues can distinguish a cry for help from that of a threat of assault. Unfortunately, this officer had no training on how to deal with mental health breakdowns before taking the campus beat. I interact with college students every day — as a professor and a lawyer. Mental health breakdowns, particularly while under great stress, are not uncommon among college students. Before an officer walks among college students, the officer should be required to have mental health training.

There should always be nonlethal alternatives available to police officers on college campuses. I was shocked to learn this officer, as well as other officers at Georgia Tech, do not carry tasers on their belts. Personally, I would rather see a college police officer trained with the use of a taser than a Glock.

Finally, studies have shown that female officers are better at dealing with mental health issues, particularly with young adults. A woman would immediately recognize a child’s cry for help and seek to deescalate the danger with words instead of force. Unfortunately, a male officer sees more of a threat than his female counterpart. We should have more female officers ready to take the lead in dealing with mental breakdowns, especially on college campuses.

Just because an act is legally justified, does not mean there is not a better way on higher ethical and moral ground.

J. Tom Morgan is the former district attorney of DeKalb County and a professor of criminal justice at Western Carolina University.