At what point should police use lethal force?

Spawned by two trainwrecks of pit threads, I’m interested in hearing folks’ thoughts on this question: at what point should police use lethal force? More specifically, should the parameters for the use of lethal force be modified by indications that the target of the lethal force is a minor or is insane?

I’d offer a thesis statement, but I don’t have a good one. This is one of those subjects on which I’m very conflicted.


I believe the standard requires an officer be in imminent danger of death or bodily harm to use lethal force. In other words, if someone points a gun at a cop, it’s acceptable. If a known killer is running from the cops, it’s not.

Same with civilians AFAIK, with latitude given in home invasion situations.

So to me it’s simple, if the police are in immediate danger, lethal force is acceptable. No other parameters come in to play in my mind.

I’d like to see where this argument goes before I make up my mind (I’m with LHoD, here, it’s a tricky subject as to where to draw the line) but if I may I’d like to add another example - Jean Charles de Menezes was shot in the head because it’s the current policy of our police to shoot suspected suicide bombers there, instead of the normal toro aiming, as that could set off explosives. As well as with minors and the underaged, what changes are made if the suspect is a suspected suicide bomber?

A reasonable belief they are in imminent danger of death or bodily harm or that a third party is in danger is generally the accepted criteria I think. I suppose it varies from state to state. Reasonable belief I think is a key word here. If I point a toy gun at you you’re not in any real danger but how do you know it is a toy?


When trying to figure out where a line is drawn, I figure it’s helpful to use hypotheticals. Normally I shy away from hypotheticals, but this is an exception.

Would you have any problem with the police using lethal force on a child who was too young to comprehend death, who couldn’t distinguish between a toy gun and a real one, and who pointed a real gun at the police?

I don’t mean that rhetorically: I can certainly see arguments in favor of using lethal force in this case, although I don’t think I agree with them. This does seem to me to be a very borderline case.


Agreed, MGibson. Especially in this case as the usually tell-tale bright orange tip of the pellet gun had been painted black.

This reminds of of a case where there was clear evidence of mental illness, the bipolar man federal air marshalls shot at the Miami airport last year. As with the situation with the teenager in Florida, it’s a terrible situation, but the marshalls had no choice but use deadly force.

I don’t want to see anyone shot and/or killed but least of all the police who are trying to enforce the laws. If you threaten the police with what is potentially a deadly weapon then you run the risk of injury or death. That would be a gun, or something you are trying to pass off as a gun. A knife, or a club.
The police should not be required to wait until they are attacked. They should be required to identify themselves and issue a verbal command unless there is an immediate threat.

Recently in Nashville a pizza delevery order was suspected to be a robbery attempt. A police officer made the delevery and three adolescents tried to mug him. One was armed with a pistol. He shot one of them in the leg. I’m glad no one was killed but in that case if one of the adolescents had been killed it would have been their fault.
I think when you make the decision to threaten someone else with serious physical injury to rob them or some other crime, then you surrender your rigt to consideration in that moment. When you are no longer a threat then you deserve certain considerations as a human being.

These two sentences are very interesting, because they set a different standard, and I believe it’s a standard that underlies many folks’ assumptions.

Specifically, there are some situations in which a person does not make the decision to threaten someone else with serious physical injury, but does so anyways: folks who are legally insane, for example, or very young children. Have they surrendered their right to consideration in that moment?


I agree with **MGibson ** and Slacker. I’m not a cop, and have no intention of ever putting myself in that position, so really, I can’t say how it feels to have a gun pointed at me and not know if it’s a toy or not.

If an officer’s life is in imminent danger, they should shoot.

Seems like someone always brings up the case of the toddler holding the gun. I’d like to point out what I said in the other thread, too:

A toddler can possibly be convinced, cajoled, or bribed to put the gun down. An angry teen probably can’t.
I have very little reliance on a toddler’s aim.
And a toddler can be (gently) wrestled to the ground, where a teen probably can’t.

I’m not saying this means we should have no worries around toddlers holding guns, or that toddlers with guns should be shot! I’m just pointing out that it’s not an equivalant situation, really, and the parameters are different, and it’s disingenous to bring it in and compare it as though it were the same.

I don’t know, man. We can always dream up bizarre examples that will give the most stringent deadly force supporters pause. I certainly wouldn’t advocate dropping a two-year-old who found a gun in Dad’s nightstand (I’d be in favor of dropping the father, but that’s another thread).

I don’t know where to draw the line though.

Let’s dismantle this straw man right now, please. Nobody is saying the situations are equivalent. Hold on a second…


Hopefully that takes care of that.

What I am saying is that, if we’re to understand the ethical parameters of the situation, it’s helpful to examine borderline issues. One such borderline issue involves a lethal threat presented by a person who is not intending to present a lethal threat; a toddler with a gun is a classic example of this issue. If we can figure out how to handle borderline issues, it’ll help us figure out a much broader range of in-between issues.


Hoo wee, what a sticky question. After much consideration, I think this:

is the key, but not the whole picture. What’s missing is information. The police need to have sufficient information before they enter the dangerous area in order to evaluate whether or not there is actually an intended threat present. In the case of the toddler, the parent calling the police would probably say, “Help, my toddler found my gun!” and then the police would know it’s a toddler with no intent to kill, and act accordingly.

In the case of uncertainty regarding the weapon (read “whether or not it’s a real gun”), the police need to know with absolute certainty before they point their, quite real, guns at anyone, and just as importantly, before they get anything pointed at them. Naturally, obtaining that could be very difficult, but in my opinion it’s better than “shoot first, ask questions later.”

As an auxiliary question: one alternative to lethal force mentioned in the trainwreck threads is the use of less-lethal force: when in doubt, why not use a taser or a beanbag gun? Several folks responded by pointing out that:

  1. Less-lethal force can still be lethal; and
  2. Less-lethal force subjects the police to greater danger, inasmuch as the targets of less-lethal force can sometimes still act.

What I’m wondering is, are there any studies on these two issues?

  1. What is the lethality of attempted lethal force compared to the lethality of attempted less-lethal force?
  2. What is the rate of success in a target’s attempt at using lethal force after being targeted with lethal force compared to after being targeted with less-lethal force? (i.e., how many criminals get off a shot after being shot at themselves, compared to how many get a shot off after being tasered, under similar circumstances?)

Obviously, these aren’t going to be clinical studies; but there may be compiled statistics on them. Does anyone know?

If #1 shows that lethal force is far more lethal than less-lethal force, and #2 shows that similar numbers of victims of lethal force can continue fighting compared to victims of less-lethal force, that would be a very strong argument in favor of using less-lethal force. If the results are the opposite, that’d be a very strong argument in favor of using lethal force. If the stats don’t exist, this is all just irrelevant meandering :).


I think that police officers have to make their lethal force decisions based on the evidence in front of them. If the person with the gun appears to be holding the gun in such a way that it can be fired at the officer or others, and there appears to be an intent to fire it, lethal force is justified, even required. This obviously gets emotionally and morally more complex if the person with the gun is very young, but if a person can point the gun with his finger on the trigger, he’s old enough to kill.

In the case of a toddler with a gun, it’s up to the police officer how to handle it. I daresay that I don’t know any police officers who would shoot a toddler with a gun. The law in Maryland allows lethal force to be used if the officer’s life or another’s life is in danger. If that means shooting a 12 year old, that’s too bad for the 12 year old.

There is a saying, “Better to be judged by 12 than to be carried by 6”. Most police officers in my aquaintance appear to agree.

I am not a cop, but I am a human being, as are police officers. If someone points a gun at me, I don’t care if that person is later determined to be mentally retarded, depressed, that the gun is fake, whatever, I am going to blow him out of his shoes. Why? Because my life is valuable to me, and I am not going to gamble with it. Police officers have to gamble a little bit, but they deserve to go home as well. That kid had every chance to call it off and didn’t, and so the officer decided, rightfully, that the lives of everyone around, including his own, were more valuable than rolling the dice. I’m fine with that.

Police should use lethal force any time they think they have to pull the trigger on their weapon. No wounding, no warning shots, just one right in the X-ring. They are trained and put in a position to use their judgment, and I don’t think that they should be second guessed in cases like this.

An officer, as a trained individual but with various personalities and tendencies makes a judgement call in the heat of the moment. If they decide to talk someone down then thats great. In MAine a lady in a hunting cabin was killed after she fired a rifle over the heads of illegal hunters. She was distraught but the officers were in no immediate danger. In that case I believe they made a bad judgement call. They could have taken the time to talk her down.
They cannot possibly know what every situation is before they go into it. That seems obvious. They make a call based on what they do know. If there’s no immediate threat they can try to find out more information but that’s not always possible.
Also here in Nashville a store owner was shot by police. They responded to a robery report. The store owner was outside his own store with a gun. He barely spoke english. The police didn’t know who he was. They ordered him to put the gun down and when he didn’t comply they shot him. A tradegy for certain but still an understandable response by the police.

I would pretty much assume that a toddler with a gun had no concept of killing much less intent. What’s your point?

Let’s say it was an older child of 7 who was emotionally upset. I think that situation would call for patience and an atempt to calm the child. If the child was threatening the life of another child that changes the situation. Each is unique.

What makes you think all of this wonderful information is available or that there is time to collect it? If a kid goes off the deep end and starts waving around a toy pistol he painted to look real, as far as anyone knows it IS a real pistol. Should the cops wait until he takes a hostage or shoots a couple students to determine if it’s real or not?

Let’s also not forget that cops are people and not robots (with the exception of Robocop). They may have a split second to decide on how to handle a potentially leathal situation. I don’t know about you, but I would rather be at home coping with shooting a kid armed with a fake gun then to get shot with a real one.

Then of course you have people who get into “shoot the gun out of his hand” or “shoot them in the leg” fantasies. That’s pretty hard to do under the best of situations.

And finally, there is the question of using less than lethal weapons like beanbag guns or tazers. These options should be available and used under the right circumstances. But none of these weapons can take someone out before they can take you out with a Glock.
Moral of the story is, don’t point things that look like guns at cops. It’s not that hard to do.

I wonder if you could look at post 13 and respond. I suspect that you’re right, but I’m wondering whether the evidence exists to support this.

Honestly, I’m not sure that this is relevant. The controversial cases don’t involve people who benefit from this moral: they either involve people who cannot grasp it (e.g., small children), or people who are suicidal, and to whom the moral is actually the opposite. If we’re talking about people who rob a bank and, in getting caught, point a cell-phone at cops pretending it’s a gun, I doubt you’ll find many folks who blame the cops for responding with lethal force.


Is there anyone who has access to a state’s police policy on the use of lethal force? It’s probably good to use that as a starting point and see how it might need to be amended. No need to re-invent the wheel here.