On Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, Hummelstown police officer Lisa Mearkle was acquitted of homicide in her trial for killing David Kassick, an unarmed civilian, after he fled a traffic stop. Immediately after the news broke, fissures in the community widened as voices flooded social media to express opinions on the verdict. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. It’s simply what happens when a prevalent national issue finds its way into a small town with only seven police officers.
However, regardless of where one stands on Mearkle’s use of lethal force and her subsequent acquittal, this event serves as an opportunity for addressing a bigger issue: What exactly affords a police officer, or anyone for that matter, moral justification in taking the life of another human being? The answer to this question contained in the founding documents of our nation relies on the concept of an individual’s inherent “right to life.”
The Declaration of Independence puts forth, in what exists as the most central tenant of our national belief system, that all humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” When an individual threatens the life of a police officer, they jeopardize the officer’s right to life. Since the right to life is constitutionally protected, this threat of harm is used to legitimize the officer’s application of deadly force as a form of self-defense.
At first glance, the right to life argument seems sufficient for validating officers’ use of lethal force. However, under harsher scrutiny, this method of justification generates a major problem. It begs the question of what gives one human a greater right to life than another human when the Constitution promises equality. More specifically, it forces us to ask why an officer’s right to life should trump an alleged criminal’s, especially considering the Bill of Rights guarantees “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime…without due process of law.”
If the argument for a police officer’s justification in using lethal force stems from the moral permissibility of defending one’s right to life, then by the very same logic any person a cop points a gun at would have to possess equal justification in killing the officer in defense of their own right to life.
Of course, I highly doubt most people would suggest individuals be excused for killing any police officer brandishing a lethal weapon. One must think of whether or not the officers have a greater right to life than the individuals they police, or find a different justification for the use of deadly force than the “right to life” argument.
Bryce Detweiler is a third-year student majoring in communications and philosophy. He can be reached at BD846487@wcupa.edu.