Criteria for US Police Shooting at a Suspect?

Often wondered about this and never really been sure of the answer.

Here in the UK (as i understand it) police are only permitted to open fire where there is an immediate threat to human life. There are probably pages and pages of guidelines but i think the principle is pretty simple and clear cut. Also, in my view, pretty sensible.

Watching various US TV shows it seems like police can open fire if a suspect is just trying to escape, where there is certainly no threat to life nor even any suggestion of it.

Is this the case? If so, what’s the justification? If not, what is the criteria?

Each state (maybe each municipality) is gong to have a different criteria, but from what I’ve seen, they’re not too different from what you describe in the UK. Typically, an investigation is triggered (no pun intended) every time a policeman discharges a firearm, so it’s always a big deal.

Also, don’t believe what you see on TV shows. If *CSI *were to be believed, the Crime Lab guys spend lots of time chasing down subjects and interrogating them.

The same standard applies in every US jurisdiction, barring minimal subtleties in departmental regulations and whatnot. For a shooting to be justified, there must be a legitimate, immediate threat to the officer’s (or someone else’s) life, or a reasonable perception of same.

Don’t believe everything you see on TV.

You pretty much have it. Police are authorized to shoot if there’s an immediate threat to ‘public safety’ and no other reasonable action will stop that threat. For example, a man waving a gun and not responding to orders to drop it can be shot as soon as the gun is pointed at a person.

Actually, a person waving a gun can be shot. If he points that gun at someone he may very well pull the trigger in the same instant. Then it would be too late for the police to shoot.

Seems like it’s only the older cop shows (70s, 80s) where the cops shoot someone fleeing.

I believe a fleeing felon can be shot in many jurisdictions if there is good reason to believe that the felon is an immediate danger to the community. See the link below for a good overview of the subject.

Yes I think you may be on to something here. It may be a holdover paradigm from the 40s-70s or whatever.

I’ve never been a cop of any sort, but in 1975 I did take an advanced firearms course at my local junior college. It was taught by a police officer and not only covered shooting, but also the legal aspects of such.

One thing in Florida at that time was the “Fleeing Felon” rule if I remember correctly. A police officer could shoot a fleeing person if he directly observed that person committing a felony.

Things are different, today. Since this is GQ I won’t offer an opinion as to why, but I will paraphrase one thing that Officer Smith said about the Fleeing Felon rule. It was something like this: “Remember that in the case of a shooting, the judge, the alleged perp and/or his/her relatives, maybe a jury, your supervisor, maybe the D.A., the newspapers, and a lot others might spend months going over your split-second decision. My advice is, unless there is a clear threat of severe injury or death to you or others, DO NOT SHOOT.” So, even then, if this is any indication, it may have been allowed to shoot at someone trying to get away, but in the 70s in my locale anyway, it was discouraged. Heavily discouraged.

And yeah, don’t believe evrything you see on TV or the movies.

Here’s some examples of what happened from a recent case in Boulder, CO.


That last cite makes it sound as if in many jurisdictions, police officers have exactly the same rights to shoot a criminal as private citizens; that is, almost none. Interesting. I think I agree with that, but it’s still interesting.

That might be true in theory, but in practice you can safely assume the officers will be cleared of any wrongdoing, unless it’s really obvious that the shooting was unjustified. The cop will get the benefit of the doubt.

Here is the New Jersey Attorney General’s guideline on the use of force, including deadly force (warning PDF). Most states have the same or similar.

Use of Deadly Force

  1. A law enforcement officer may use deadly force when the officer
    reasonably believes such action is immediately necessary to
    protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death
    or serious bodily harm.
  2. A law enforcement officer may use deadly force to prevent the
    escape of a fleeing suspect
    a. whom the officer has probable cause to believe has
    committed an offense in which the suspect caused or
    attempted to cause death or serious bodily harm; and
    b. who will pose an imminent danger of death or serious bodily
    harm should the escape succeed; and
    c. when the use of deadly force presents no substantial risk of
    injury to innocent persons.
  3. If feasible, a law enforcement officer should identify himself/herself
    and state his/her intention to shoot before using a firearm.
    C. Restrictions On The Use of Deadly Force
  4. A law enforcement officer is under no obligation to retreat or desist
    when resistance is encountered or threatened. However, a law
    enforcement officer shall not resort to the use of deadly force if the
    officer reasonably believes that an alternative to the use of deadly
    force will avert or eliminate an imminent danger of death or serious
    bodily harm, and achieve the law enforcement purpose at no
    increased risk to the officer or another person.
  5. A law enforcement officer shall not use deadly force to subdue
    Attorney General’s Use of Force Policy
    persons whose actions are only destructive to property.
  6. Deadly force shall not be used against persons whose conduct is
    injurious only to themselves.
  7. Under current state statutes the discharge of any projectile from a
    firearm is considered to be deadly force, including less lethal
    means such as bean bag ammunition or rubber bullets. For that
    reason, these and similar less lethal means of deadly force can
    only be used when an officer reasonably believes such action is
    immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from
    imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
  8. A law enforcement officer shall not discharge a weapon as a signal
    for help or as a warning shot.
  9. While any discharge of a firearm entails some risk, discharging a
    firearm at or from a moving vehicle entails an even greater risk of
    death or serious injury to innocent persons. The safety of innocent
    people is jeopardized when a fleeing suspect is disabled and loses
    control of his or her vehicle. There is also a substantial risk of
    harm to occupants of the suspect vehicle who may not be involved,
    or involved to a lesser extent, in the actions which necessitated the
    use of deadly force.
    a. Due to this greater risk, and considering that firearms are
    not generally effective in bringing moving vehicles to a rapid
    halt, officers shall not fire from a moving vehicle, or at the
    driver or occupant of a moving vehicle unless the officer
    reasonably believes:
    (1) there exists an imminent danger of death or serious
    bodily harm to the officer or another person; and
    (2) no other means are available at that time to avert or
    eliminate the danger.
    b. A law enforcement officer shall not fire a weapon solely to
    disable moving vehicles.

I’ve often wondered when it changed. In the ‘30s Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed and killed. I can see the cops’ side of it: Why give them a chance to get to their guns? Given a chance to surrender, they would likely have replied with bullets. But ambush is no longer within the Rules of Engagement.

Lately, the criteria seems to be: Is the subject black or an immigrant? If yes, then shoot.

Very nice GQ answer.

It hasn’t changed totally. If you read my link or quote you will see there is still allowances for fleeing suspects.

So in the case of Bonnie and Clyde (not an expert but saw the movie) they were murderers who could reasonably be seen as being a threat to commit more murders if they got away. It would still be justified. It used to be that the criteria was a “fleeing felon”. That was struck down in Tennesee v Garner. Now the fleeing felon must be a murderer for deadly force to be justified.

Only they weren’t fleeing. They were ambushed. Certainly (a) fits. (b) does too. There was a decoy known to Bonnie & Clyde who was put there by the lawmen to distract them. That seems to put an ‘innocent’ person at substantial risk. But I still think B&C weren’t ‘fleeing’.

In any case, an ambush – opening fire without warning – seemed to be an acceptable tactic at the time. I haven’t heard of such a thing happening in my lifetime. So when did it change?

Oops forgot to put in the link. The quote in the above post is just a requote from my states guidelines. The fleeing suspect portion is shaped by Tennesee v Garner.

Like I said all I saw was the movie. Not sure how it really went down.

I can remember a controversy over police stake-out teams that were deployed in liquor stores in an attempt to reduce the rate of armed robbery. I’m not sure how much, if any, warning they gave the robbers, but there was much whining about “death squads” from certain segments of the community.

I found this: