The Walter Scott shooting and use of police force

Catholic moral theologian—and former police officer—Tobias Winright offers his insight on when the use of lethal force by police in the line of duty is justified.

The shooting of Walter Scott by South Carolina police officer Michael Slager is one event in an ongoing string of police shootings that have dominated headlines. The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and subsequent incidents around the country have cast doubts among many in the public about the use of police force.

Tobias Winright has been outspoken about ethical concerns in policing, but Winright approaches the issue from a different perspective than other moral theologians. Winright was raised in a police family, with both his mother and stepfather serving in the line of duty, and Winright himself wore a badge while working his way through college. Now the Hubert Mäder Endowed Chair of Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University’s Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics, Winright has become an authoritative voice on the problems resulting from the transition in recent decades in the United States from a community-oriented model of policing to a more militarized approach.

U.S. Catholic spoke with Winright about his background in policing and his thoughts on the use of police force in the Walter Scott shooting and other recent cases. (Our full interview with Winright on changes in policing appears in the April 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic.)

How exactly did you get involved in policing?

My mother got a job with a local city police department in Florida in 1980, a few years after Angie Dickinson played a policewoman on TV. She started in patrol, transferred to the sheriff’s department doing the same, and later became a detective, working in the crimes against children unit before going into homicide. She was also a hostage negotiator. During that time she married someone from the sheriff’s department, who was a sergeant, worked in patrol, and flew one of the department’s helicopters.


I’m the oldest of four boys and I always wanted to go university. I’m the first and only person in my immediate family who went to college at all. When I graduated from high school, I started at Saint Petersburg Junior College (now Saint Petersburg College) and I applied to police departments in order to work my way through school. In 1984 I got hired by the same department where my mom and stepfather worked.

After earning my associate’s degree, I subsequently transferred to University of South Florida in Saint Petersburg, and I worked full time mostly during the midnight shift. I was a corrections officer in the maximum security jail there. I could do a little bit of reading during downtime, and I did that for a little bit over four years. I resigned not long after graduating and then went to Duke Divinity School to study for a master’s degree in theology.

Did the work you were doing influence your studies?

I studied political science as an undergraduate, and I was interested in international relations, but also found myself fascinated by the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. I was thinking about law school, and part of me considered ordained ministry, but I became more and more interested in ethics and questions about the use of force.

When I wore a badge, I asked myself, would I really shoot someone to kill him if I had to? I’m a cradle Catholic, and in addition to considering law school, I toyed with the possibility of ordained ministry. So, I started thinking about what Jesus would do. And that question really occupied me, which is one of the reasons I focused on it during graduate school at Duke and then at Notre Dame, where I could study theological ethics, bringing all of these areas of interest together for me.


How should police deal with a situation where they need to use force?

It goes back to that community policing model. You have an offender, but your job as an officer is not to punish that person. The rest of the criminal justice system (courts, prisons) are responsible for that. The police are supposed to apprehend him, but hopefully you’re going to do it in a way that’s going to not inhibit or interfere with the prospect of that person’s restoration to the community at some point.

Obviously, if lethal force is necessary—and I think it might be under very limited conditions, when somebody’s life is really, seriously at risk—you can’t restore that person. That’s a very last resort, and killing someone is obviously irreversible. The use of force is supposed to be proportionate to the gravity of the alleged offense, so deadly force is now justified only under circumstances where it is in “defense of life”—that is, to protect the life of the officer or of another person from a grave and imminent threat posed by a suspect. It seems to me that some of the incidents where lethal force has been used recently by police may not be congruent with these criteria.

What are your thoughts on the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina?

The shooting of Walter Scott by Michael Slager, a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer, appears very problematic to me morally and, perhaps, legally. Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Tennessee v. Garner, police use of lethal force has been restricted to where “it is necessary to prevent…escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

Prior to that, police could use deadly force to shoot at any fleeing felon, because once upon a time that category of “felon” referred to fewer grave offences than today, but many of which were capital crimes, punishable by death anyway. That has changed. The life of even an offender who commits grand theft auto weighs more, proportionately, than the property stolen. A preemptive “execution” of that offender by the police officer is disproportionate to the gravity of the crime the offender committed. So now lethal force by police has been narrowed significantly, where it is almost at where the Catholic teaching on deadly force (self-defense, death penalty, just war) is referred to in recent teaching, like the Catechism, as “legitimate defense of persons and societies” (2263).


Walter Scott was fleeing from Officer Slager. It does not look like he was posing a “significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” However, just before he attempted to flee, he allegedly struggled with Officer Slager and took the taser that the officer tried (unsuccessfully) to use against him. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Garner ruling was still a bit unclear about whether a police officer might be allowed to use lethal force in order to stop a suspect who had posed a serious threat during the offense committed, but perhaps no longer does so while fleeing.

The thinking here is that if a suspect posed such a threat this time, he is likely to do so again in the future, so shooting him is therefore justified to prevent that from happening. This will probably be what Slager will claim. Even though Scott was unarmed, he allegedly wrestled the taser from Slager and thereby posed a serious threat to him, meaning he might do so again if he gets away. That Slager apparently went back to pick up the taser and then dropped it near Scott’s body casts a lot of doubt on his account, though. Police are not supposed to tamper with a crime scene like that. Still, I think this area of ambiguity in the Garner decision needs to be addressed. For me, the threat that Scott might pose in the future, even if it is more than only possible, is still speculative; whereas shooting him in the back several times and thereby killing him seems certain. On which side shall we as a society, if Garner is revisited, rather err?

Are police are trained to shoot to kill?

The police are taught to shoot “center mass.” Why? In the Des Moines Police Academy where I taught ethics while I was a reserve police officer—and this wasn’t even me teaching, it was another academy instructor—recruits are taught that one’s intent is not to kill. His or her intent is to stop the other person from killing the police officer or someone else. What’s the most likely way of doing that? Aiming for the center part of the suspect.

Why not aim for the leg to stop them without killing them?

Shooting is difficult. I never had to use lethal force, but even in training it’s hard. Your adrenaline is up. It’s not like in movies or TV. I could never, unless I was totally lucky, shoot a gun out of somebody’s hand or shoot them in the leg or the foot. With a pistol, that’s almost impossible.


Police aim for the suspect’s center area to increase the likelihood of actually hitting the person and stopping them from killing somebody else. Shooting at a leg is more likely to miss, and it might not stop the suspect. It also increases the likelihood of hitting somebody else, sort of like “collateral damage.” Most police departments don’t even allow for warning shots anymore because of our denser populations—what goes up comes down, and you might hit an innocent bystander somewhere.

It’s sort of like what Thomas Aquinas said with regard to personal self‑defense. The intent is not to kill; it’s to stop the person. The primary effect is stopping the person from killing you or someone else, but the secondary effect is that they die. That’s not your intent, even though it is foreseen. If you could stop them in any other way, you would, but this was the only way to do so. In the Catholic moral tradition, this framework is known as the principle of double effect.


That’s actually how police are taught. That’s different than the approach of soldiers at Fort Benning, where I once trained when I was in ROTC as an undergraduate, or troops carrying a bayonet and yelling, “Kill, kill, kill!” I don’t know a police department that’s doing that. They’d better not be.

For a sniper, the only way to stop somebody might be to do a head shot, but they’ve got their scope. The vast majority of police on the streets don’t carry a rifle with a scope. That’s why they’re taught not to kill but to shoot center. I don’t even like the phrase “center mass.” You’re dealing with a human being, not an object.


Recent news stories like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in New York have raised serious questions about the relationship between race and police force. Do you think race plays a part in how police are using force?

I’ve seen references to studies that indicate these shootings occur more to people of color than to white people. I know people dispute that, too, and talk about black‑on‑black crime. There’re a lot of elements to this that can muddy the waters, but I don’t think that there’s any denying that the sense among those of color is that something is wrong.

When these cases occurred in Ferguson and then New York, the communities obviously felt something was wrong, that there’s a sense of injustice that’s been percolating there. Not just with policing, I think, but that is the most manifest, visible symptom of it. These incidents have really forced us to not be in denial about it but to face it and to address it. Addressing policing is only one part of it.

How can police begin to address the systemic issues involving race?

Police in these communities should themselves come from the community. There was a story in the St. Louis news that one of the police departments near Ferguson had a mini-academy for high school kids. The number of kids this year tripled from last year, mostly children of color. That’s what the department was encouraging.

These children might want to become a part of a program where they can ride along with an officer and learn what policing is like. Some departments even have a cadet program. Maybe the local community college could say, “You get a tuition break or a cut, reduction, if you do well in school and, you’ll be a part of this cadet program.” Start giving avenues for these departments to become more representative of the communities that they’re policing. That will help a lot.

This is a web-only interview that accompanies the print interview with Tobias Winright titled “Keeping the peace,” which appeared in the April 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 4, pages 18-22).

Image: Flickr photo cc by USAG- Humphreys