Use of Lethal Force By Police Officers: What You Should Know

The use of lethal force by officers spurred widespread protests across the country. Based on media reports, civilian emotions were sparked by the belief that the use of deadly force may not have been justified. What everyday people may not know is that only a limited number of lethal force cases result in an officer being charged. Fewer officers are ever convicted.

According to reports, only about 100 have been charged with a crime in lethal-force cases from 2005 to 2019. This is by comparison to nearly 1,000 officer-involved shootings each year. Given that we live in uncertain times, it is worthwhile to understand what lethal force entails.

What Constitutes Justified Use of Physical Force?

Police officers and the public have a defined right in two of the four categories of use of force. These two include self-defense and the defense of a third party. It’s generally legal to use whatever force is reasonable and necessary to protect yourself or someone under attack or threat of bodily harm. The other two categories of force are crime prevention and law enforcement. These two are usually reserved for certified officials.

Some states recognize that force can be lawfully used by a civilian to prevent a crime. These are crimes such as murder, sexual assault, or theft. Police officers are granted justified use of force under all of these circumstances. They almost exclusively enjoy legal protections when it comes to crime prevention. This is not to say that having a badge entitles someone to act unlawful. Officers must still act in a manner that is deemed justified. They still have a “code” and set of rules to follow.

Law enforcement officials are highly trained and educated about the legal use of force. The guidelines they operate under typically take into account wide-reaching circumstances. Police are able to use “reasonable force” only when “necessary.” Force is also only supposed to be used using “minimum” physical means. However, the use of lethal force calls for a heightened standard. There are significant differences that exist between an ordinary citizen using deadly force and a police officer.

What Constitutes Justified Use of Lethal Force?

Because the men and women who make up the thin blue line are tasked with preventing peaceful communities from descending into lawlessness, they have the demanding responsibility of making split-second decisions about force. The difference between deploying a taser and discharging a service weapon comes down to what is at risk for the officer, third parties, and the community at large.

As an example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed what is known as the “Stephon Clark Law.” This law defines lethal force for police officers. The lethal force standards outlined in the law went into effect in 2020. They are generally consistent with police policy in most states.

The Stephon Clark law defines deadly force as “any use of force that creates a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily injury.” This is not limited to a firearm. Officers can use lethal force in cases of “imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.” Another factor that influences the decision is whether a suspect has the “ability, opportunity, and apparent intent” to inflict bodily harm or death. Police consider the “totality” of the circumstances when making that choice. And, most times, they have to consider and make the choice to apply deadly force in just fragments of a second.

Civilians may not understand what the term “necessary” involves in state laws. The broad definition is designed to protect vulnerable community members as well as frontline officers.

The “Necessary” Use of Lethal Force Includes:

(1) defend against imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person.

(2) apprehend a fleeing person for a felony that threatened or resulted in death or serious bodily injury who the officer reasonably believes will cause death or serious bodily injury unless immediately apprehended.

The idea that an officer uses lethal force in the moment includes his or her perspective on the matter. For instance, if the perpetrator escapes, someone else could suffer injury or death. When members of the mainstream media render opinions that the lethal use of force was not necessary, they are not always operating from the protect-and-serve perspective.

What happens to innocent people should a knife-wielding suspect escape is part of the decision-making process. Failing to act can and does result in community members suffering severe consequences.

Police departments aim to help their officers avoid lethal force. One of the ways is by better equipping them with safety gear. A patrol officer wearing protective wear, such as a riot suit, has an improved opportunity to arrest a violent offender through non-lethal means. That’s why Haven Gear provides law enforcement agencies with protective equipment for every situation. Contact us today if you want to learn more about the most durable, safe, and mobile defense technology possible.