Below is my column on the hill on the spate of recent police shootings and the resulting demands for reform and criminal charges. Two new incidents have occurred in the past week and both raise serious questions that need to be answered about the use of lethal force. In North Carolina, 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. was shot dead while carrying out an arrest warrant. He was reportedly shot in the back trying to escape, but no weapon was found. In Virginia, 32-year-old Isaiah Brown has been shot and killed more than six times by an MP who appears to have thought a cell phone was a weapon. The officers had previously driven Brown home and were later called back home because of differences of opinion. The tape shows Brown saying he would kill his brother with a gun, but Brown told the 911 driver he didn’t have a gun. These and previous cases capture the dangerously uncertain and chaotic context of such cases. Both Brown cases raise serious questions that must be answered about the use of lethal force.
Here is the column:
The shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio raised numerous objections to the police’s response to armed suspects. Some, like MSNBC host Joy Reid, simply state that using lethal force to stop a knife attack is “murder”. Joy Behar, co-host of “The View,” says officers who come across someone who is about to hit someone should shoot in the air as a warning. President Biden has long claimed that police officers should shoot armed suspects in the leg.
However, there is a reason why the police manuals do not say “aim at the leg” or “try to shoot the gun out of the suspect’s hand”. It is referred to as “imminent damage,” the standard for all police shootings. The fact that many of us refer to such shootings as “justified” does not mean belittling these tragedies, but rather recognizing the underlying imperatives that control the use of lethal force.
In the slow motion video of recordings on cable television, there often seem to be endless possibilities for de-escalation or alternatives to deadly violence. None of us want to hear about the loss of another young life like Bryants. But Biden’s suggestion – “instead of having someone walk up to you and shoot you first to kill, shoot them in the leg” – doesn’t work that way, either practically or legally.
When officers use lethal force, it is meant to “neutralize the threat” and not kill anyone. You are trained to shoot the core of your body as this will minimize the chance of failure while maximizing the chance of neutralizing the suspect. Shooting at the hand, leg, or weapon can endanger others and may not neutralize a suspect. Likewise, officers are not trained to use non-lethal force, such as a taser, to stop a lethal attack. Tasers are sometimes ineffective at neutralizing suspects. When the threat of deadly violence is imminent, officials use deadly force to stop the threat.
Those dangers were evident in 2019 when Aaron Hong ran on the police with a large knife when officers literally asked him to drop the knife and even went back. Hong stumbled toward an officer who fired seven shots. Despite the proximity and aiming at the body, most of the shots appear to have missed, but Hong was hit at least once. Then, despite his wound, he got up, ran to another officer, and picked up his weapon as a third officer fired four more rounds. Have Biden call out from the sidelines: “Shoot the leg! Shoot the leg! “Would not have helped.
The key is the legal threshold for the use of lethal force. The Columbus Police Handbook states: “Sworn personnel may use lethal force if the personnel concerned have reason to believe that the response is objectively appropriate to protect themselves or others from imminent danger of death or serious injury Protect. ”This language is derived from Tennessee v Garner in 1985 and other Supreme Court cases.
While former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett insisted that the police do not need guns “to end a knife fight,” the person to be stabbed might see the matter as a little more urgent. Yes, the cop could have waited while telling Bryant to drop the knife – but the other girl could be dead today, and her family could object to the cop’s failure to protect her.
By definition, the use of lethal force is only justified when the danger of death or serious bodily harm is “imminent”. At this point, an impending threat must be neutralized immediately, even if trick shooting or limb shooting was possible. In the case of the Bryant shooting, police were told that a person tried to stab someone. Officer Nicholas Reardon was confronted immediately when Bryant attacked another girl with a knife. She was in close proximity to the other girl and swung the knife at her when he fired four times. It was a justified shooting by the standards of lethal force in place.
A similar scene occurred recently in Knoxville, Tennessee. Police confronted 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. in a bathroom after his girlfriend called him about domestic violence. When they tried to handcuff Thompson, he grabbed a gun in his hoodie. It discharged and officers thought he was going to shoot them. You shot Thompson. Despite this proximity and the shooting at the center of the body, some shots apparently missed and hit another officer. In the confusion, the police believed the wounded policeman had been shot by Thompson.
I have both sued and defended law enforcement officers. You work in a violent, unpredictable environment that few of us have ever experienced. These scenes are adrenaline-fueled, chaotic moments that often leave a few seconds for critical decisions. Even with extensive training, officers can shoot each other or bystanders in the blink of an eye.
However, on CNN and MSNBC, hosts and guests insisted Officer Reardon could have waited and that knife fights were common among teenagers. CNN guest and Rutgers University associate professor Brittany Cooper stated, “No black person is going to be really safe if we can’t have a bad day, if we can’t defend ourselves, if we think we’re going to be jumping.”
Of course, most of the people who meet with the police are having “a bad day,” which is why the police were called. Lethal force is only used in a small percentage of these encounters. Studies show that the vast majority of the 1,000 or so civilians shot annually were armed or otherwise dangerous. According to the Washington Post, police shot and killed 55 unarmed people in 2019, including 14 black and 25 white people. That is not to say that racism is not a serious long-term problem in such shootings. However, this national debate on lethal standards of violence will do little if we do not recognize the practical and legal realities of violent encounters.
Jonathan Turley is Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online at JonathanTurley.