The recent police shooting incident in South Carolina, in which a man fleeing from a police officer was killed when the officer fired his pistol at him has made headlines nationally. One of the underlying questions invoked by the shooting is under what circumstances a police officer may use deadly force in general, and in particular against a fleeing suspect.
These questions have been addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases. We will briefly examine each of them below.
When is the use of deadly force by police appropriate? The use of deadly force by a police officer when it was not needed can be considered to be an example of excessive force.
The Supreme Court considered the question of how to decide if police use of force is excessive in the case of Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). In that case, the Court rejected arguments that police use of allegedly excessive force should be examined under a uniform standard of substantive due process, and instead held that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (protecting individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures) controls questions of excessive sue of force. It also held that that whether such force was in fact excessive requires a case-by-case determination of whether the officer’s conduct was “objectively reasonable.”
The standard of objectivity is whether a reasonable police officer at that time and place — and considering factors such as the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the police officer or others, and whether the suspect is actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest — would have used deadly force. These factors must also be coupled with consideration of the need for police to often make immediate decisions about how much force to use in any given situation.
When can police officers shoot at fleeing individuals? The Supreme Court addressed this question in the case of Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), which involved a fatal police shooting of an unarmed and fleeing suspect. The Court again applied the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and held that the question of the use of deadly force must be balanced between the intrusion against the suspect’s individual rights versus the government’s interest in effective law enforcement, noting that the older common-law standard that permitted police to use “whatever force is necessary” to arrest a suspected fleeing felon has became obsolete.
The test that the Court crafted in place of the older common law standard boils down to the issue of whether the police officer has probable cause to believe that the fleeing suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to others.
Both of these cases apply standards to the questions of when deadly force may be used, but in each case the specific facts and circumstances must be considered in applying those standards. This is the uniform treatment that law enforcement must use in Oklahoma and every other state in the country.