Several recent police shootings — including a cop killing a fleeing black man last weekend — have raised questions about how far cops can go when confronting suspects.
If police have Tasers, why don’t they use those instead of deadly guns?
An officer’s intuition influences these split-second decisions even more than any standard protocol, according to Chuck Drago
, a former police chief in Florida with over 30 years of experience in law enforcement and government.
“What it comes down to is what the officer feels at the time,” said Drago, who acts as an expert witness about police tactics and advises police departments. “If the officer is in fear for his life, he can use deadly force to thwart the threat.”
That means a cop could reach for a gun instead of a Taser if they feel truly threatened.
Police do, however, have some guidelines for when to shoot a suspect. For instance, research has shown that a suspect who comes within 21 feet of an officer can inflict harm before the cop has time to react (though some contest the validity of the “21-foot rule” in certain circumstances). So officers try to distance themselves from the suspect.
Contrary to what’s portrayed in TV and movies, police aren’t trained to shoot to disarm. They shoot to stop the threat.
“They are taught to shoot at center mass (the upper torso) because that is the easiest target to hit,” Drago said.
An officer typically wouldn’t have the time or skill to shoot at the arms or limbs of a “fast approaching threat,” he added. Police also commonly shoot several times since one or two shots may not stop a suspect.
If a suspect is fleeing, then they’re obviously less likely to pose a threat than suspects who are approaching an officer. An officer is only justified to shoot a fleeing suspect in a specific set of circumstances, according to experts who spoke to The New York Times.
The 1985 Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner narrowed the so-called Fleeing Felon Rule, which previously held that officers could use deadly force on a fleeing person suspected of a felony. Now, officers can’t shoot unarmed, nondangerous suspects out of concern that they may escape. Instead, police must believe the suspect will cause death or serious injury to the officer, other officers, or the public, if not apprehended.
The man who was shot in South Carolina last week, Walter Scott, had turned and run from the officer after getting stopped for a minor traffic violation. He arguably posed no obvious threat.
“Whatever happened, this suspect was running away,” George Washington University Law School professor Stephen A. Saltzburg told the Times, regarding Scott’s shooting. “That is, the suspect was trying to avoid the officer. It is highly doubtful that the officer could legitimately claim that he thought that the suspect posed a danger to the life or the serious health of anybody else in the community.”
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