When Can Police Use Deadly Force?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 30, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Police may use deadly force when it is necessary and proportional. While on duty, officers' lives are genuinely endangered, as last week's shooting death of a New York officer shows.

So what do those words "necessary and proportional" mean? How is an officer supposed to determine whether deadly force is justified in the heat of the moment?

Necessary and Proportional

States all have different statutes governing the specific circumstances necessitating use of deadly force. But the two basic principles underlying them all are proportionality and necessity, as Paul H. Robinson, a University of Pennsylvania Law School criminal law expert told The Atlantic.

The wording will differ from state to state, but the ideas are always the same. So let's look at a sample statute and see what it says.

New York's Penal Code, Section 35.30 provides that a police or peace officer may use deadly force to effect an arrest or prevent an escape during certain felonies, including one involving physical force against another, or when the perpetrator of a felony has a firearm and is resisting arrest or attempting to escape.

Finally, deadly force may be justified when an officer acts in self defense. "Regardless of the particular offense which is the subject of the arrest or attempted escape, the use of deadly physical force is necessary to defend the police officer or peace officer or another person from what the officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force."

Reasonable Belief of Imminent Threat

Most people would probably not argue that officers must be able to defend themselves when their lives are threatened. The laws on using deadly force recognize that there are extreme situations that demand extreme responses. It is reasonable to expect officers to react to a deadly threat -- to themselves or others -- with a proportionate response.

The reason police shootings have received much national scrutiny recently, however, is because not all deaths at the hands of cops have seemed to meet the standards set out by the statutes that responses be necessary and proportional. Some have even seemed downright disproportional and totally unnecessary, like the shooting of unarmed 14-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year.

Brown's death brought widespread national attention and outcry to the question of deadly force by officers. This may be why more cops this year have been charged with murder or manslaughter for excessive use of force than in previous years. The increased scrutiny will hopefully help make the streets safer for innocents and police officers doing a dangerous job.

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