When Cops Can Shoot

Amnesty International has released a report on the state of law enforcement in the United States, and it’s unattractive. As reported in the Guardian:

Every state in the US fails to comply with international standards on the lethal use of force by law enforcement officers, according to a report by Amnesty International USA, which also says 13 US states fall beneath even lower legal standards enshrined in US constitutional law and that nine states currently have no laws at all to deal with the issue.

Contrary to the way in which shootings are portrayed by journalists who repeat police press releases as if they actually meant something, police are theoretically constrained by law, as is everyone else. It’s just not the same law, despite the fact that there is “no officer safety exception in the Constitution.”

The ordinary presentation to the public is by some chief or spokesmodel, who explains that a shooting was within departmental policy.  This is a nonsensical point, although journalists rarely question it.  Departmental policy is not law.  Departmental policy is whatever the big cheese at the police department decides it is, and not even the almighty chief gets to create policy that violates the law.  The chief does not dictate when cops can shoot, when cops can kill. Only the law can do that.

But what is the law?

The analysis, which Hawkins said he believed was the first of its kind, compared state statutes on law enforcement’s use of lethal force with international legislation, including the enshrinement of the right to life, as well as United Nations principles limiting lethal use of force to “unavoidable” instances “in order to protect life” after “less extreme means” have failed. Further UN guidelines state that officers should attempt to identify themselves and give warning of intent to use lethal force.

Let’s be absolutely clear: The United Nations “principles” mean nothing here. It is not law, and given some of the more bizarre things that come from the U.N., it’s highly unlikely that anyone would really want the U.N. making decisions for us, even if we like this particular set of guidelines.

The Amnesty review found that only eight states require a verbal warning to be given before an officer engages in lethal force. In nine states, law enforcement officers are legally allowed to use lethal force during riot. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the use of force statute mandates that deadly force is justifiable if it is “necessary to suppress a riot or mutiny after the rioters or mutineers have been ordered to disperse”.

Further, Amnesty found that in 20 states it is legally permissible for law enforcement officers to employ lethal force against an individual attempting to escape prison or jail, even if they pose no threat. In Mississippi, for instance, law declares “the killing of a human being … justifiable … [w]hen necessarily committed by public officers, or those acting by their command in their aid and assistance, in retaking any felon who has been rescued or has escaped”.

Amnesty’s report also charges that the laws on lethal force in 13 states do not even meet the less stringent constitutional standard set by the 1985 US supreme court case Tennessee v Garner.

But then, at least those 13 states have laws.

Amnesty identifies nine states – Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming – alongside Washington DC where no law enforcement officer lethal force statutes exist.

In these states, the constraints are federal constitutional limits, state caselaw and possibly common law principles, to the extent they haven’t been superseded.

Amnesty International is calling for all states to amend (or enact) laws that bring them into compliance with “international standards,” though there isn’t a chance in hell of that happening, despite the concern engendered by the stream of needless, high-profile police killings.

A Guardian investigation into deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers in the US has so far documented 515 people killed by police this year. The statistics reveal that black people are more than twice as likely as white people to be unarmed during fatal encounters with police, and show that black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate as white Americans.

And despite the meager limits the law places on the use of deadly force by law enforcement, it’s then subject to the secondary influence of prosecutors and judges who show little inclination to hold police accountable if there is any way to excuse away their conduct.  And in some instances, even when there isn’t.

In most discussions of police shootings, the discussion of their lawfulness addresses the excuses they raise, their explanations for fear and loathing, and the validity of their justification, because avoidability isn’t on the table as yet.  But in doing so, the discussion rarely touches upon the law, the question of whether deadly force should be limited to those situations where it’s is required to prevent death or serious injury, rather than just the easy and facile way to make sure that cops make it home for dinner.

Or, as is the case in 13 states, shoot to kill whenever they feel like it. More or less.

6 thoughts on “When Cops Can Shoot

  1. David M.

    If you look at the counter, it appears the Guardian article you quoted typo’d 525 to 515. 525 dead by the 173rd day of the year – at this point, we’re actually six bodies ahead of last year’s top-end estimate of three police killings a day. No wonder official statistics are a bit lacking.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not always easy to be sure they’re actually dead. Sometimes, they have to wait a while to be sure.

  2. DDJ

    Meh to the U.N. report. Everyone’s gotta write reports. That’s to seem like there’s a reason for them to be in the building instead of out by the pool drinking gin and tonics.

    The more interesting question, for some aspiring statistician-SJW, would be to compare shooting deaths at the hands of the police in the states with no laws, best laws and a coupla groupings of laws-in-between to see if the laws make any difference.

    And then look at the prosecutions of those police to see if …. Oh, never mind, no use wasting our time.

    1. SHG Post author

      Among the problem is that the organizations doing the reports have agendas of their own, so that they aren’t perceived as honest brokers. Here, I’m trusting their recitation of facts, though (like you) I think their admonition that the US should adhere to UN standards is silly. But who would do the heavy lifting? Maybe lawprofs, but they’re too busy finding excuses to violate our constitutional rights or pondering how lawyers can be “happier.”

    2. John

      It is not for a lack of effort. It is a mathematical problem. There is a body of literature that has attempted to look at laws regarding gun violence and gun control and their effects. Confounds, such as the percentage of rural residents v. urban residents, cannot be corrected for because the confounds are not independent of the laws. It turns out states with higher percentages of gun owners demand different laws than low gun owning states. So, is the effect the law, or the percentage of gun owners, percentage of rural residents, rate of college education, etc.? With a large enough sample size you can compare subtle differences at, say, the same % of gun ownership, but not with only 50 states, DC and a few territories.

  3. Wrongway

    Umm.. wow so many questions.. but.. this ain’t the place..
    This system is set up seemingly, to make it almost impossible for any non legal type person to understand, other than those who are not like .. umm .. non legal type people.. and now they wanna throw in the U.N. Standards.. ahh.. yeah great..
    lets see how that’ll turn out..
    ” I think their admonition that the US should adhere to UN standards is silly. “..
    that won’t stop them ..

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