Cops Don’t Have a License to Kill -- It Just Seems That Way

police shooting gun

Do the police have the right to shoot to kill? Is that the policy they operate under? Many people certainly think so in the wake of teen Michael Brown's death. He is the most recent in a long list of police killings of unarmed men. The Stir takes a deeper look at the controversy and police policies to figure out why this continues to happen. 


In the same 30-day period that Brown lost his life, three other unarmed black men were killed by cops. On July 17, Staten Island, New York, father-of-six Eric Garner was confronted by cops for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. When he resisted being handcuffed, he was put in a chokehold (a defensive measure that is actually banned). Despite gasping for breath and saying, "I can't breathe," officers did not loosen their grip. Garner died.

A few weeks later on August 5, two police officers responded to a 911 call about a man waving a gun at customers in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart. According to the cops, 22-year-old John Crawford didn't obey their orders to put down the weapon. He was shot and killed. The gun he was holding turned out to be a BB rifle he had picked up from a store shelf. 

On August 11, Ezell Ford was shot in the back in Los Angeles after an "investigative stop" while he was walking down a sidewalk. Police say he tackled the lead officer and went for his weapon. But a witness says he was lying on the ground complying when he was shot in the back. 

While the majority of the cases we've heard about in recent weeks involve black men, they are not the only victims of these types of shootings.

In Ottawa, six police shot unarmed, suicidal teen Joseph Jennings 16 times as the boy's family begged them not to. Two of those very same officers had come to his aid the day before when he had tried to take his life by swallowing 60 pills. “I told them ... 'he’s suicidal, he’s upset, don’t shoot him,'" his aunt Brandy Smith told reporters. “And that’s what I don’t understand is, why did it take them shooting him 16 times at least for them to bring him down?"

So the question remains: Why? Kill these men when it's not clear they are guilty of anything? Contrary to public opinion, police say they don't operate under a "shoot to kill" guideline. To really understand what happens in those tense, adrenaline packed moments, officers and training experts break it down for us.

Is there a shoot to kill policy for police?

"Police officers are not trained to shoot to kill," says William J. Johnson, Executive Director of the National Association of Police Organizations. "They are trained to shoot when necessary to stop. Stopping the threat is the goal, not the death of the suspect. In fact, 99 times out of 100, the officer who fired the bullets is the same officer who calls for medical treatment for the suspect, and even starts first aid himself or herself."

What about the use of deadly force -- that is allowed, right?

"Shooting someone constitutes deadly force, which, by definition, means force that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm," explains Michael A. Knox, a Forensic Science & Criminology Consultant. "By virtue of making the decision to use deadly force, one is necessarily making the decision to use force that may result in the death of the person against whom force is used. The standard policy of every law enforcement agency I have encountered in the United States requires that deadly force be used to stop a threat of imminent death or great bodily harm to the officer or another person. Officers, therefore, are trained to shoot until that threat ends."

Why can't they shoot to wound? Aim for an arm or leg?

That only works in movies and TV, according to the experts. "Shooting to wound or disarm simply isn’t realistic," adds Johnson. "In real life it is very difficult to hit someone in the hand or foot, or to shoot a gun out of the hand of a suspect. Even highly trained military snipers with special rifles sometimes miss their target. For a police officer with a handgun in the midst of a suddenly dangerous situation, it’s even more difficult. When you also consider city streets with many bystanders about, some of whom might be struck by a bullet which misses its mark, it makes more sense to try to hit the main body of the suspect, which is a bigger target."

Why are there so many cases of officers shooting unarmed suspects?

"An unarmed person can just as effectively kill another human being as an armed one can, especially a 6'4", 290-pound human," says Charles Redlinger, a former U.S. Marine who served as a police officer in Metro-Atlanta where he was involved in a deadly shooting with a bank robber while in the line of duty. "In the case of police officers, there is always a deadly weapon at the incident -- the officer's. All officers are very aware to the deadly scenario that exist when a person is willing to assault you -- even unarmed -- and with one accurate strike to your head render you unconscious with your firearm now available to the perpetrator. The next action in this scenario by the criminal will most likely be your fatal shooting/murder with your own weapon. This nightmare scenario lives in the back of every man and woman who has ever pinned on a badge and policed. When you encounter someone who is crazy enough to fight an armed officer, it is a very scary experience for the officer ... yes we get scared too. It does not matter what the instrument of assault is (hands, hammer, knife, gun, pot or pan), if you feel that you will not survive the encounter or that you may risk great bodily harm, it is your right to use all necessary force to protect yourself ... including deadly force. Police officers are not superhuman. In most cases a single police officer will not be able to restrain and handcuff a single criminal by him or herself without additional officers or the use of some type of weapon like baton, pepper spray, Taser, or firearm. It is extremely difficult to overpower another person, restrain them with one hand while you retrieve your handcuffs, and handcuff them when that person wants to fight or resist. An unarmed person with a deadly mindset is nothing to be trifled with."

Why do some officers in deadly encounters shoot so many times? Isn't that excessive?

"The human body and mind are phenomenal things and can endure tremendous adversity, like multiple gun shots," says Redlinger, who has investigated hundreds of murders and shootings as a homicide detective. "There are countless examples of suspects and heroes who stayed in the fight and charged forward with fatal wounds and inflict deadly force on their opponent. In a deadly force encounter, it is common for multiple officers on scene to engage a suspect as cops do not have time to say, "Fellow officer, only you shoot and the rest of us will stand here." Again, when someone is charging you and you are shooting them, you cannot see the strike of your rounds and may not see any reaction from the suspect as if he or she were hit. That leads you to believe you are missing or that the suspect is not stopping. Police officers are trained to shoot until the threat stops, that can be 2 bullets or it can be 12. The situation dictates."

Is there ever a better alternative to a gun, like a Taser?

"A Taser can be a good tool in certain situations," says Johnson. "For example when the suspect is not an immediate threat to others. But sometimes the Taser doesn’t affect the suspect, either because of drugs, or thick clothing, or other factors. Tasers also have a shorter range than firearms. Sometimes, unfortunately, the firearm is the only tool that will work."

When an officer draws his gun, are there things a suspect should do to show they are not armed?

"Or her gun," corrects Johnson. "Yes, it is fair to assume it is an extremely stressful and often very frightening situation. The single best thing I could advise anyone is to just freeze, just stop whatever they are doing. Do what the officer tells you to do, even if it doesn’t make sense right now. He or she may be aware of facts that you don’t know. Don’t reach into a pocket or purse or under the seat of a car or into the glove box until you let the officer know what you want to do and he or she says it’s OK. The officer DOES NOT want to shoot anybody. He or she wants to go home alive and unhurt at the end of their shift. Even if you think the officer is wrong, or being rude, or a jerk, just do what he or she tells you for now. Don’t let anyone get injured because of a mistaken movement or item. You will have the chance to complain to the officer’s boss, or a judge, later on."

Are you sympathetic to what police officers go through in the line of duty?


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