Category: Justice
The Use of Deadly Force by Police Officers

The use of deadly force by law enforcement personnel in the course of their duty has been one of the most contentious aspects of the American political scene. One of the reasons for that is the fact that it is probably the most serious act that a law enforcement officer can engage in; moreover, it has the most severe of consequences for those involved. Thus, it is imperative that police act within the law, ethics of law enforcement, good judgment, and good faith whenever faced with the situation where they can use deadly force. However, in some cases, officers do not see to use these principles, which has led to a wave of national furor. For instance, there have been reservations about whether or not the police target minorities like African Americans and Hispanics who form a substantial part of those who die in such situations in spite of constituting a minority of the US population. This essay seeks to explore the use of deadly force by the US law enforcement agencies.

Background and History

The use of force against suspects has a long tradition in common law although scholars have barely explored this aspect. The common law authorized the law enforcement professionals to use any force, including deadly force, to “seize” a felon who was trying to flee. Thus, under the common law, the use of physical power seemed to be the default option for stopping offenders, both violent and non-violent. However, this approach has evolved to such an extent that police now rarely apply force in situations where the other party is not doing so, there is little or no threat of death or bodily harm, and the felon is not escaping. One has to note that the common law position was a relic of the time when most of the crimes entailed capital punishment. The age of due process and the fact that now only the most serious of crimes are punishable by death have reduced the need to use deadly force in non-violent and misdemeanor crimes. However, the use of force by the police continues to be a divisive issue in America.

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The police occupy a unique position. They are the only representatives of the state who in the ordinary course of events have the authority to not only use force but also take actions that can ordinarily result in the death or serious injury of citizens. Moreover, they have the power to apply force to compel citizens to comply with their orders. The police situation is also specific in that they take an oath to enforce the law, and they have a constant supply of firearms that they can use in that regard. Furthermore, the issue of police shootings also draws controversy as, unlike in the case of capital punishment, there is no due process before the life of the person is taken away as individual officers mostly determine it in pressure situations.

There are several instances in which the police are allowed to use deadly force. According to McElvain and Kposowa (2008), the first one is when the officer needs to defend himself or herself or another person from the use of force or immediate deadly force by the suspect. Secondly, law enforcement officers can also apply force to arrest a person he/she reasonably believes to have committed a felony. Thirdly, the law allows the police to use deadly force in the prevention of an escape of a person who has committed a felony from lawful incarceration.

Tensions About the Use of Force by the Police

The Racial Aspect

In most US states, it is apparent that racial minorities form a larger percentage of the number of people who die at the hands of police. Regardless of whether or not the force that the police use is justified or not, this has composed a substantial part of the discussion in the media, among politicians and private citizens. It has long been noted that what distinguishes the judicially mandated death sentence from death after the police have used excessive force is the use of the due process by the courts. In the case of police taking lives, there is a little probability for the person that was killed to have a hearing, appeal or challenge the decision to kill him/her before he/she dies. It is because the decision to use deadly force on the suspect is usually made in a split second by the officer. This point has raised an imperative question of whether in such situations, the biases of the officers do not play into their minds leading to the killing of innocent people of color, especially African Americans. Many have supported this assertion by noting that the deaths of people of color are at an asymmetrical level when compared to the percentage of the African-American population in the country. While representing slightly more than thirteen percent of the US population, they constitute more than fifty percent of the victims of police violence in some places.

When analyzing the apparent disproportionality of minorities who are shot by the police, social scientists have developed two ways in which to explain it. One narrative describes that racism is part of the police culture, and thus, police departments are more likely to shoot African Americans for violent police confrontations. On the other hand, the theory explains that the police do not distinguish African Americans and other colored minorities. According to this theory, the minority groups constitute a significant number of the victims of police shootings due to their disproportionate involvement in violent crimes such as armed robberies and engagement in activities the police regard as life-threatening, such as resisting arrest and carrying weapons. However, cases like that of Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold by the police, invalidates the second account.

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What Is Justified Use of Force?

The fact that there seem to be no nationally objective standards on the use of deadly force beyond very controversial cases has exacerbated this issue. Thus, there appears to be consistency in what the law enforcement officers can do without committing an illegality across different states. In some states, for instance, Washington, the police have an extended purview regarding this issue. As per the law, the state cannot prosecute the police as long as the law enforcement officials acted in "good faith" and not out of evil intent. Consequently, the personnel in the state cannot be prosecuted, even in the case of wrongdoing, as long as the prosecution cannot prove evil intent. The need to prove evil intent means, for instance, that police cannot be prosecuted for negligence in killing a person.

The need to prove ill intent differs from the ideal situation where the police can be brought to justice for unlawful deaths if the prosecution can demonstrate that the police acted wrongly. However, Amnesty International (2015) has noted that thirteen states in the US do not even meet the standards set by the US Constitutional law on the use of lethal force. These are Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont. The case of Eric Garner comes to mind in this regard. Moreover, none of the US states pass the international criterion for this matter while nine states, which are Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia, have no laws on the use of lethal force by the police. This fact has created a legal lacuna that has led to different standards regarding the use of deadly force by the police.

Accountability and transparency

Another issue that is at the forefront of the police use of deadly force is accountability. There is an opinion that the law enforcement personnel is rarely held accountable for their wrongful actions that result in the deaths of innocent people. It is caused by several factors. First, the law in the entire United States seems to be skewed towards the law enforcement agencies. In most cases, the police department that employs the officer suspected of wrongdoing investigates the matter, which raises questions as to their impartiality, independence, and transparency when inspecting their colleagues. Moreover, the police then hand over theory investigations to the prosecutors who have to try to remain in good relations with the police departments. Consciously or not, the decision whether to prosecute the case (or convene a grand jury in some jurisdictions) can be affected by this. Thus, there is a need for independent investigators and prosecutors. Once in court, most police officers get an acquittal due to weak or bungled investigations or ineffective laws.

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Supreme Court Cases

Numerous US Supreme Court cases have set a precedent on this issue. One of the most prominent is Tennessee v. Garner. In this case, the court sought to rewrite the common law position that it thought was too soft when it came to punishing the wrongful use of police violence. In this case, the court explained that law enforcement officials could not use deadly force on a fleeing suspect unless he/she had probable cause to believe that the suspect was at significant risk of causing death or severe bodily harm to the officer or other people. The court further interpreted the law to find that the police infringed the Fourth Amendment rule against unreasonable seizure by using deadly force on a fleeing suspect if this condition did not apply.

While the Tennessee v. Garner was restrictive in its definition of the circumstances under which the police could use deadly force, the Supreme Court in the 1989 case of Graham v. Connor widened the definition of the police use of deadly force to include a new test of “objective reasonableness.” The new standards were premised on several issues and were not subject to the state of mind of the officer who shot the suspect. The court explained that the new standard had to be judged from the view of a reasonable law enforcement officer at the scene. This new standard had a basis on the fact that the police were usually forced to make decisions in split seconds to determine the justifiable force in any situation. Consequently, this decision seemed to be an echo of the dissent by Justice O’Connor in the earlier case of Tennessee v. Garner.


The essay was an analysis of the use of deadly force by law enforcement agencies in the US. As it is apparent, the use of deadly force has a history starting from the common law to the modern American experience. The race matter in the issue of the use of deadly force by the police causes substantial tension in this case as many have accused the police of racial profiling. The other questions are the definition of what is a justifiable use of deadly force and the transparency and accountability in the investigation of the case the police are involved in. Supreme Court restricted the leeway in common law in the case of Tennessee v. Garner. However, the inclusion of a feasibleness test in the case of Graham v. Connor further widened the authority of the police at the crime scene.

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