Below is my column in the Hill on the spate of recent police shootings and the resulting calls for reforms and criminal charges. Two new incidents have occurred in the last week and both raise serious questions that must be answered on the use of lethal force. In North Carolina, Andrew Brown Jr., 42, was shot and killed during execution of an arrest warrant. He was reportedly shot in the back while trying to flee but no gun was found. In Virginia, Isaiah Brown, 32, was shot more than six times by a deputy who appears to have thought that a cellphone was a gun. The officers had previously given Brown a ride home and they were later called back to the home due to a disagreement. The tape shows Brown saying that he was going to kill his brother with a gun, but Brown told the 911 operator that he did not have a gun. These and the prior cases capture the dangerously uncertain and chaotic context of such cases. Both Brown cases raise serious questions that need to be answered on the use of lethal force.
Here is the column:
The shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, has produced a torrent of objections to how police respond to armed suspects. Some, like MSNBC host Joy Reid, simply declare that the use of lethal force to stop a knife attack is “murder.” “The View” co-host Joy Behar thinks officers who come upon someone about to knife another person should shoot into the air, as a warning. President Biden has long maintained that police officers should shoot armed suspects in the leg.
However, there is a reason why police manuals do not say “aim for the leg” or “try to shoot the weapon out of the suspect’s hand.” It is called “imminent harm,” the standard governing all police shootings. The fact that many of us describe such shootings as “justified” is not to belittle these tragedies but to recognize the underlying exigencies that control the use of lethal force.
In the slow motion videos of shootings played on cable television, there often seems to be endless opportunities for de-escalation or alternatives to lethal force. None of us want to hear of the loss of another young life like Bryant’s. But Biden’s suggestion — that “instead of anybody coming at you and the first thing you do is shoot to kill, you shoot them in the leg” — is not exactly how it works, practically or legally.
When officers use lethal force, it is meant to “neutralize the threat,” not to kill someone. They are trained to fire for the center of the body because it minimizes the chances of a miss while maximizing the chances of neutralizing the suspect. Shooting for the hand or leg or weapon can endanger others and may not neutralize a suspect. Likewise, officers are not trained to use nonlethal force, like a taser, to stop a lethal attack. Tasers are sometimes ineffective in neutralizing suspects. If there is an imminent threat of lethal force, officers use lethal force to end that threat.
These dangers were evident in 2019 when Aaron Hong ran at police with a large knife as officers literally begged him to drop the knife and even moved back. Hong lurched at an officer who fired seven rounds. Despite the close proximity and aiming for the body, most of the shots appear to have missed, but Hong was hit at least once. He then got up despite his wound, ran at another officer and was grabbing his weapon when a third officer fired four more rounds. Having Biden shout from the sideline to “Shoot for the leg! Shoot for the leg!” would not have helped.
The key is the legal threshold for the use of lethal force. The Columbus police manual states: “Sworn personnel may use deadly force when the involved personnel have reason to believe the response is objectively reasonable to protect themselves or others from the imminent threat of death or serious physical harm.” That language is derived from Tennessee v. Garner in 1985 and other Supreme Court cases.
While former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett insisted that police do not need guns “in order to break up a knife fight,” the person about to be stabbed may view the matter as a tad more urgent. Yes, the police officer could have waited while calling for Bryant to drop the knife — but the other girl might be dead today, and her family might object to the officer’s failure to protect her.
By definition, the use of lethal force is justified only when a threat of death or serious bodily harm is “imminent.” At that point, even if trick shooting or firing at limbs were feasible, an imminent threat must be neutralized without delay. In the case of the Bryant shooting, police had been told that a person was trying to stab someone. Officer Nicholas Reardon was immediately faced with Bryant charging at another girl with a knife. She was in close proximity to the other girl and swinging the knife toward her when he fired four times. Under the governing standards for the use of lethal force, it was a justified shooting.
A similar scene unfolded recently in Knoxville, Tenn. Police there confronted Anthony Thompson Jr., 17, in a bathroom stall after being called by his girlfriend with a domestic abuse claim. When they tried to handcuff Thompson, he reached for a gun in his hoodie. It discharged, and officers thought he was firing on them. They shot and killed Thompson. Even with this close proximity and shooting for the center of the body, some shots apparently missed and hit another officer. Indeed, in the confusion, police thought the wounded officer had been shot by Thompson.
I have both sued and defended law enforcement officers. They work in a violent, unpredictable environment that few of us ever experience. These scenes are adrenaline-driven, chaotic moments that often allow few seconds for critical decisions. Even with extensive training, officers can shoot each other or bystanders in the flash of an encounter.
Yet, on CNN and MSNBC, hosts and guests insisted that Officer Reardon could have waited and that knife fights are common between teenagers. CNN guest and Rutgers University associate professor Brittany Cooper declared that “no Black person is truly going to be safe if we cannot be having a bad day, if we cannot defend ourselves when we think we’re gonna get jumped.”
Of course, most people who police meet are having “a bad day,” which is why the police were called. Lethal force is used in only a small percentage of these encounters. Studies show the vast majority of the roughly 1,000 civilians shot annually were armed or otherwise dangerous. According to the Washington Post, in 2019, police shot and killed 55 unarmed persons, including 14 Black and 25 white individuals. That does not mean racism is not a serious, long-standing problem in such shootings. However, this national debate over lethal force standards will achieve little unless we recognize the practical and legal realities of violent encounters.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.