Guest Opinion: The Alabama Legislature should pass a new standard for police use of force

This is a guest review

As we head into a new year with friends and loved ones, one family in Huntsville continues to live an ongoing nightmare with an empty seat at the family table. For Officer Ben Darby, this is another day in prison away from his loving wife and family since his wrongful conviction for murder in May 2021. Officer Darby’s case is not just a miscarriage of justice in itself, but a tangible example of why Alabama needs to change its laws so future cops like him don’t get run over for their crimes.

In 2018, Officer Darby and two of his colleagues responded to reports of a mentally disturbed individual who had a history with local law enforcement. Officer Darby attempted to de-escalate the situation by ordering the subject to drop his weapon upon discovering the imminent threat to himself and his colleagues that person posed. The individual continued to disobey seven lawful disarmament orders. Officer Darby felt he had no choice but to shoot to protect himself and his two colleagues.

But three years after taking action to defend himself, his colleagues and the community, Officer Darby was convicted of murder. During the trial, which was shown remotely to another room due to the COVID pandemic, those present there, including Officer Darby’s family and the media, were able to witness the trial. During the trial, the judge, for no apparent reason, turned off the video, keeping Officers Darby’s trial private.

The prosecutor compared Officer Darby – a trained police officer who has sworn to uphold the law – to an ordinary civilian who randomly enters a home to shoot someone. Officer Darby was trained by his agency to handle situations like this particular incident. It’s not a normal citizen. The judge also dismissed substantive and exculpatory statements, such as that of a neighbor who said the person intended to lure police officers into his home and kill her because he hated law enforcement.

While Officer Darby’s trial contained numerous procedural flaws, such as disabling the video feed and disallowing Officer Darby’s experience and role as a law enforcement officer in the situation, the underlying issue that led to his conviction stemmed from Alabama’s failure to adopt here Graham vs. Conner as a standard view of officers’ use of force. This Supreme Court ruling relates to civil proceedings and not criminal proceedings. However, it could be adopted as an appropriate standard for assessing the acceptable use of force by both investigators and prosecutors when identifying officers involved in actions involving the use of force. In that 1989 decision, the US Supreme Court created a standard for the use of force that examines “whether the actions of officers are ‘objectively reasonable’ in the light of the facts and circumstances with which they are confronted”. In other words, the Court held that courts should consider (in court proceedings) whether an officer acted in a manner consistent with the response of other similarly trained police officers given the circumstances of a particular incident. This should also be allowed in criminal courts.

In this particular case, we already know that Officer Darby hit them Graham vs Connor Default. An incident review panel convened by the Huntsville Police Department found Officer Darby’s actions reasonable and within the law — although the same panel ordered Officer Darby’s colleagues to attend remedial training for their involvement in the incident. However, prosecutors believed that without the use of violent experience or training, Officer Darby committed a premeditated crime and murdered this individual.

So why, after receiving these findings, did an activist prosecutor convene a grand jury to indict Officer Darby with murder? And why, if that same prosecutor was so convinced of the officer’s guilt as the murderer, did he offer him a no-prison-prison deal if only Officer Darby would plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit?

Hopefully the policy makers will find a way to put an end to this madness – not just for Officer Darby, but for any future officers who find themselves in a similar situation. The Alabama Legislature should work with law enforcement leaders and law enforcement organizations to pass legislation at its upcoming session that will enforce this standard in all state cases.

This action would be the best way to start a new year for Officer Darby and his family. Just as importantly, it would bring peace of mind to the thousands of our members who work tirelessly every hour of every day to protect and protect the communities of Alabama.

Everette Johnson is State President of the Alabama State Police Fraternity, which represents over 8,300 law enforcement officers statewide. He has served 27 years in law enforcement.