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Police use of lethal force – what does the law say?

Recent fatal cases raise question of whether police protocol was breached

The police shooting death of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson has sparked outrage over what locals say was police brutality. While Ferguson law enforcement officials have defended police actions, an FBI investigation into the shooting has been launched. But what legal protocols govern the permissibility of the use of deadly force by police? Al Jazeera examines three recent cases.

Michael Brown

Michael Brown, top left.
Jeff Roberson/AP

On Aug. 9, in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, 18, suffered fatal gunshot wounds  while allegedly fleeing from police officers.

At a news conference the day after the shooting, Police Chief Jon Belmar of St. Louis County alleged that Brown rushed at one of his officers who was in a police car at the time, and that Brown had attempted to wrest the officer's gun away from him. Belmar said at least one shot was fired from inside the vehicle.

"The officer was able to exit the vehicle, where the fatal shooting occurred in the street, approximately 35 feet from where the officer's vehicle was parked," a St. Louis County police statement read. "There were several shell casings found at the scene. All of the shell casings match to one weapon, and that is the officer's weapon."

Multiple witnesses said Brown had attempted to flee, though it is unclear if he stopped before police shot at him.

The police department confirmed claims from the family and witnesses saying that Brown was unarmed.

According to a 1985 Supreme Court ruling, a police officer has the right to fire at a fleeing suspect only if that suspect poses a significant risk. In the case of Tennessee vs. Garner, the court found “such [deadly] force may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

If Brown is proved to have been fleeing the scene when he was shot, the onus would be on the law enforcement officer who fired to prove that he had reasonable grounds to believe that the suspect posed a threat. Tony Rothert, legal director for Missouri’s ACLU chapter, said proving reasonable grounds for believing a suspect posed a threat would be more difficult when that suspect was unarmed.

“Basically if [Brown] had a gun and he was shooting,” then the officer would have the right to use deadly force, Rothert said. “That would be a classic example.”

Eric Garner

Eric Garner memorial.
Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Police protocol often goes further in restricting use of deadly force than Supreme Court rulings do in order to protect public safety.

One example is the New York Police Department's prohibition on officers using chokeholds to restrain suspects.

On July 17, NYPD officers were attempting to arrest Eric Garner, 43, when Garner was brought to the ground with an officer’s arm around his neck. Garner was gasping for air and saying, “I can’t breathe.”

A city medical examiner concluded that Garner had died as a result of neck compression from the chokehold along with "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." Asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors to his death.

According to the New York Police Department Patrol Guide: “Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds. A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.”

NYPD union leader Patrick Lynch argued that technically, Garner was not  placed in a chokehold.

“Even if it was not technically a chokehold, if officers have someone on the ground saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ you stop doing what you’re doing,” Samuel Walker, author of In Defense of American Liberties, said. “There’s just a failure on a truly human level to respond to someone in crisis.” 

James Boyd

Albuquerque police aim at James Boyd.
Albuquerque Police Department / AP

On March 16, Albuquerque police shot and killed James Boyd, 38, a homeless man who was “illegally camping.” After police officers launched a stun grenade and released an attack dog on Boyd, Boyd pulled out a pocketknife. Two police officers responded with rifle fire killing Boyd. The fatal shooting was captured by an officer’s helmet-mounted camera and released to the public.

Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden called the shooting justified, saying officers had first used non-lethal and a direct threat made against an unarmed K9 officer.

“All the less than lethal devices were, in fact, deployed. It was when the canine officer was down directing the canine dog that the suspect pulled out the two knives and directed a threat to the canine officer who had no weapons drawn. He was handling the dog,” Eden said. “If you follow case law, Garner versus Tennessee, there was directed threat to an officer.”

Not everyone agrees. “When you look at the video, which is a police video of that incident, there’s no immediate threat to anybody’s life,” Walker said. “This is like a full-scale military response to a homeless guy in the park.”


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