The unidentified man was the 175th person killed by police in Washington state since 2015 and among approximately 1,000 people killed by American police in the past 12 months.
The killing made only regional news in the Seattle area. Unusually, though, Seattle police released officer body camera footage within hours, accompanied by a narrative of the incident. Authorities had attempted to Taser the man to no avail, officials said, and only when the man moved toward officers did two of them fire at him.
It was a random police killing in the United States, notable for the immediate availability of clear video footage of the death. The Washington Post asked three policing experts in countries where police killings are rare to look at the footage and imagine how such a scenario — a distressed man with a knife encountering police — would play out in their countries.
Immediately, a major discrepancy jumped out to the three experts: a police officer wielding a semiautomatic rifle while responding to a mental health crisis. That doesn’t happen in Canada, Japan or Finland.
Further, responding officers seemed to surround the man holding the knife and move toward him with guns drawn, the opposite of what’s taught in police training in their countries, the experts said.
“The general rule is to maximize distance in the case of any weapon and use tactical communication to reason with the subject until such time as there is an imminent threat to a life other than the subject’s,” said Michael Andrew Arntfield, a former Ontario police detective and an author and associate professor at Western University in Ontario.
The general rule in the United States is different. Officers in the vast majority of jurisdictions have a right to use deadly force when they deem their lives or those of their fellow officers to be in danger, and they have no legal responsibility to de-escalate.
Canadian police shot and killed 34 people in the first 11 months of 2020, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Policing a population roughly nine times as large, American law enforcement officers killed 1,007 people in 2020 and more than 6,000 people since 2015.
The concept of what constitutes an imminent threat, Arntfield says, “obviously gets interpreted differently based on the experience, mind-set, confidence and restraint of the officer, a combination of hard and soft skills that, in my view, varies wildly between Canadian and U.S. officers on average.”
In Finland, the typical officer would have approached the man with a “conciliatory spirit,” says Kimmo Himberg, former director of Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation Forensic Laboratory and director of the Police University College of Finland.
The phrase is canon in the northern European country of 5.5 million: Section 6 of the Finnish Police Act reads: “The police shall act in an appropriate and objective manner and promote equal treatment and a conciliatory spirit. The police shall seek to maintain public order and security primarily through advice, requests and orders.”
Finnish police shot at people four times in 2020, with no deaths. “We don’t use the term of de-escalation a lot because, as you see in the legal text, an attitude of de-escalation for us is the starting point, not the end point,” Himberg said. “For us, ‘conciliatory spirit’ would mean that the officers would seriously attempt to make a communicative contact with the person which would be reassuring, perhaps even comforting.”
In Japan, officers would use what’s called a thrust fork — a long, pronged baton — in an attempt to pin the man to the ground or against a nearby wall so that he could be subdued without significant injury. If that effort failed, officers would then fire a warning shot, says Setsuo Miyazawa, a legal sociologist and senior visiting professor and senior director of the East Asian Legal Studies Program at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
Miyazawa’s research has identified only eight cases of police shootings in Japan in 2020.
That’s because an officer may, under Japanese law, “finally shoot at the body only when the person came very close with a clear intention to attack an officer,” Miyazawa said.
The Seattle man hadn’t yet shown such aggression before he was killed, Miyazawa said, noting that “the suicidal man held only a knife and looked several meters away from them.”
Arntfield agreed. The man didn’t seem to be advancing toward police, as the department described in its initial review of the killing, he said.
“The subject is not advancing on the officers at the time of the volley, making public versus officer the presumptive rationale for using lethal force — and the rationale for exiting the vehicle to engage the subject to begin with,” Arntfield said.
The two officers who fired their weapons have been placed on administrative leave pending a mandatory investigation, Seattle police said. In response to a request for comment on the assessments of the foreign experts interviewed by The Post, Sgt. Randy Huserik, a department spokesman, said, “As this is still an open and active investigation, the Seattle Police Department will not be making any comments at this time.”
In the event a Finnish officer feels the need to use his weapon, Himberg said, officers are trained to aim at limbs, not center mass.
“They would identify themselves orally as police officers, warn him of the possibility of the police using a firearm, and then, only under immediate serious threat, fire a shot aimed at a limb. The goal would be to stop the person from attacking, definitely not using lethal force,” he said.
In 2015, following the high-profile police killings of Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray Jr. and Eric Garner, a group of American police officials traveled to Tulliallan in Scotland to learn the methods of officers who don’t carry guns, with the hope of translating some of those teachings to the United States.
Sheriff Michael Chitwood of Volusia County in Florida implemented some of the techniques there, including crisis intervention training for his officers, and successfully curtailed use of force incidents within his departments, one of the few examples of international influence on American policing.
Himberg said the outrage at a similar killing in Finland would be loud, and enduring.
“The case would be transferred to a prosecutor for an external assessment,” Himberg said. “It is very possible that the assessment would lead to a criminal investigation where the officer would become suspected of violation of official duty.
“This kind of incident would make big headlines in Finnish media.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of the fatal police shooting in Seattle. The story has been corrected.