Information About Using Deadly Force

Armed encounters between police and citizens are tense, uncertain, and rapidly-evolving. Every decision an officer makes in such an encounter involves balancing potential risks and benefits.

Police officers have a duty to protect human life and safety, and other duties, including the duty to arrest people for whom there are valid warrants, and the duty to prevent the escape of violent felons who threaten the community. In some circumstances involving felonies, police officers are legally entitled to use deadly force to make arrests.

Self Defense

Most often a police officer’s use of deadly force occurs in self-defense, in the defense of other officers, or in the defense of citizens. Under the law, a police officer may use deadly force if the officer reasonably believes that the use of deadly physical force is necessary to defend the officer or another person from what the officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.

That reasonable belief has both a subjective and an objective component. The subjective component requires that the officer actually believe that the use of deadly force is necessary. The objective component requires that a “reasonable” person, under the same or similar circumstances, and having the same or similar training and experience as the officer, would also believe that the use of deadly force is necessary.

What is Considered

In deciding whether to use deadly force, an officer must consider several things in a split second:

  • Whether the aggressor poses an imminent threat of violence to the public, the officer, or other police officers.
  • The nature of the threat, the environment, the size and age of the aggressor, the type and number of any weapons, and the potential risk to bystanders.
  • How many shots to fire, since police officers are trained to shoot until the threat is dissipated.
  • What part of the aggressor’s body to aim for, since officers are trained to aim for the “center mass” of an attacker, the most-likely place where a hit will stop the threat.
  • “Action versus reaction,” which recognizes that an officer’s ability to react to a threat will always take longer than an aggressor’s ability to produce the threat.
  • “Sympathetic firing impulse,” which induces an officer to fire along with fellow officers reacting to the same threat.