Updated: Jul 16
Police shootings have become a contentious issue in recent years, with incidents of officers using deadly force sparking outrage and protest across the country. While many police officers perform their duties with integrity and dedication, the use of lethal force by law enforcement officials has led to widespread criticism. In this article, we will examine the complex issue of police shootings and explore when the use of deadly force is justified.
Understanding the Legal Framework of Police Shootings
The Fourth Amendment and the Use of Force
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement officials. This amendment also imposes restrictions on the use of force by police officers. Under the law, officers may use force only when it is necessary to effect an arrest or prevent a suspect from escaping. The amount of force used must be proportional to the threat posed by the suspect.
Graham v. Connor and the Objective Reasonableness Standard
In the landmark case of Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court established the objective reasonableness standard for evaluating the use of force by police officers. This standard requires that the use of force be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, taking into account the totality of the circumstances.
State Laws on the Use of Deadly Force
In addition to the Fourth Amendment and the objective reasonableness standard, state laws also govern the use of force by police officers. These laws vary by state, but generally, they allow officers to use deadly force only when it is necessary to protect themselves or others from imminent harm. Texas for example, allows the use of deadly force to prevent serious bodily injury or death.
Evaluating the Ethics of Police Shootings
The Sanctity of Human Life
One of the core ethical principles that governs police conduct is the sanctity of human life. This principle holds that every person has inherent worth and dignity and should be treated with respect and compassion. Police officers are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the lives and safety of citizens, and the use of deadly force must be viewed through the lens of this principle.
This principle encompasses the objective reasonableness standard because it is that standard that gives the justice system something to actually measure the use of force incident. In one aspect or another the goal of police officers using force is to preserve life. Whether it is their own life, lives of their fellow officers, or the publics.
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Another ethical principle that guides police conduct is the duty to de-escalate. Officers are trained to use a variety of tactics to defuse tense situations and avoid the use of force whenever possible. When force is necessary, officers are expected to use the minimum amount of force required to achieve their objectives. Even when an officer uses deadly force, once the suspect is no longer a threat, they have a duty to render aid in an attempt to preserve life.
It is important to note that there are instances where de-escalation is not an option because of the dynamic and complex nature of some law enforcement encounters. Although when it makes sense there should be attempts to de-escalate officers are not required to start at a lower level of force and work up to lethal force. Often times that is the case because the time and situation that is developing allows for it.
The Importance of Accountability
Finally, accountability is a key ethical principle that must be upheld in cases of police shootings. Officers who use deadly force must be held accountable for their actions and subject to thorough and impartial investigations. Accountability helps to ensure that the use of force is justified and that officers are held to the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. This also ensures that each officer is held to the same standard.
Not Always What It Seems
When watching a use of force incident and can be obvious that there is justification for the force used. But often times, looking through the lens of a body worn camera, it doesn't show the whole picture or tell the entire story. More often than not there are facts and circumstances that exist that may only be known to that particular officer.
Example: An officer is dispatch to an assault with a firearm call. The officer learns through his computer and dispatch that a male wearing a red t-shirt and a black ball cap pointed a handgun at people at the residence. As the officer is walking up to the house he sees a male matching that description in the yard. The male then begins to walk briskly towards a vehicle parked across the street. The officer requests the male to stop but he refuses. The officer, realizing this male is about to reach the vehicle, deploys his taser striking this person who falls to the ground. The officer then handcuffs the suspect only to learn later that he was not the suspect, and that this person was not related to the call.
People on the outside only see the following: "Why did he do that, that guy wasn't involved." "That force was not reasonable, he was just walking to his car."
Without getting to far into the tactical aspect of deciding not to tackle someone you think is armed...given the facts and circumstances that existed at the time, and what was known to the officer, it was reasonable to conclude that this person was the suspect and that this person was armed.
Whether or not he turned out to be the bad guy is not a relevant part in deciding whether or not it is objectively reasonable. Police officers do not have the luxury of seeing things in hindsight nor are they judged on hindsight.
Frequently Asked Questions about Police Shootings
Q: When is the use of deadly force by police considered justified?
A: The use of deadly force is considered justified when it is necessary to protect the officer or others from imminent harm. The use of force must be evaluated according to the objective reasonableness standard and the totality of the circumstances.
Q: What are some of the tactics police officers use to de-escalate situations?
A: Police officers are trained to use a variety of tactics to de-escalate situations, including verbal communication, physical distance, and physical barriers. Officers may also call for backup or utilize less-lethal weapons such as pepper spray or Tasers.