Last week, a 73-year-old Tulsa reserve police officer mistakenly fired his gun, believing it to be his Taser, killing an unarmed, restrained man, according to CNN. The man, Eric Courtney Harris, was being restrained by an undercover officer after a sting operation, and offered a struggle, not yielding his left arm. Officer Robert Bates, a reserve officer who was attempting to help restrain Harris, pulled out his firearm and shot one round into Harris, killing him. While there is no doubt that, given the circumstances, Bates did mistakenly fire his weapon, believing it to be his Taser, it should cause an important debate to take place. Should there be an age limit on police service? If not, should annual testing be implemented after a certain age?
Senior citizens and others rightly defend themselves against ageism and arguments that advanced age necessarily hinders their ability to perform tasks regularly performed by younger workers. However, the particularly dangerous results of a police mishap, as seen with Bates, warrant special rules and regulations. Bates, although he didn’t intend to harm Harris, did take a human life. While Harris did sell an undercover officer a firearm, that in no way could ever come to justify his death. Harris deserved jail time, not a funeral.
Placing a strict limit on police officer age would, in reality, be too difficult a reform. Police competency may vary so drastically between officers that although Bates proved himself incompetent, an officer of the same age may well be competent and still capable of safely handling deadly force in a chaotic situation. An age limit would simply disrespect officers and open the door for lawsuits and legislation. The better option would be to mandate increased testing—both physical and mental.
Officers should be tested yearly to determine if they are still capable of handling deadly force, specifically firearms, with enough competency to ensure the safety of civilians, themselves and suspects. As age increases, the need for such testing increases exponentially. Mental faculties and response time do decrease with age, and to leave out such testing for budgetary concerns, or even due to concerns that officers might have about being singled out, would constitute gross incompetence. Testing might seem to be an inconvenience, but the safety of all those encountering police officers during chaotic situations must be protected.
After policy concerns are addressed, there must be an inquiry and investigation into Officer Bates’ conduct. Pulling out and firing a pistol instead of a Taser represents a tremendous failure in police procedure and personal competency. Although officer Bates should not be charged with murder, as he clearly did not intend to fire his service pistol, he did fail to respond properly and use clear and sound decision making in this instance. At the absolute bare minimum, Officer Bates must be permanently relieved of his duty, and the family of the victim must be compensated. Compensation for a victim may seem odd, especially as no monetary value can equate to the loss of life; however, if no charges are filed, the city must feel some punishment for allowing such a tragic event to occur. If the city and the police department come off of this with only public scrutiny, or worse, through isolated criticism of Officer Bates, then there is a risk of no change coming out of this tragedy.
Officer Bates’ failure needs to translate into system-wide reform. If this tragedy is allowed to result in one officer being charged with no reform forced, then an opportunity will be missed. While this is not a common occurrence, or one that should cause alarm in the American people, one life lost is one too many. Police officers are charged with protecting the people, and that includes those they are apprehending. This officer failed to properly help his fellow officers, and not only killed a restrained man, but jeopardized the other officers’ lives as well. Retesting and training officers ever year as they advance in age will ensure that the American people are properly protected, and that no person—innocent or otherwise—is inadvertently harmed.