Police Use of Force: The Reality

January 16, 2019

A police officer using his or her firearm, shooting and taking the life of another, is as serious as it gets for civilian law enforcement interacting with the citizens they are paid to protect.

There is, and should be, a visceral response, by most everyone to such an event. In addition, there is, and should be, an examination of the facts, concerning what happened and why after every shooting scenario.

But, in this day and age, where being first is much more important than being accurate, fact-based examination is rarely a concern.

The Anti-Police Perspective

For the anti-police crowd—and this includes, I believe, much of the mainstream media—after a police shooting, the knee-jerk, default, and promoted storyline is that the police did something wrong. They caused the event. It was their fault. At best the officer overreacted, at worst the officer committed a crime up to and including murder. Often, these accusations are as uncontested as they are inaccurate and baseless. They are presented well before all the facts are known and certainly before a thorough investigation is conducted and the results disseminated.

To these who promulgate such narratives, any use of force is unjustified and is a result of an individual officer’s evil intent or a product of systemic malevolence, racism, and/or rampant corruption. The common denominator is always the police profession as a whole, the shooting a natural consequence of immoral culture.

They use the Washington Post statistics that show over the past three years the country’s police officers have shot and killed 978 annually, as definitive proof that the entire profession is out of control. They conclude that systemic racism and violence is part of the profession’s DNA and it infects all who serve in its ranks, regardless of skin color.

Massive systemic changes and in some cases outright abolishment of the police, they believe, is the only way to root out the institutional evil that permeates the 18,000 agencies throughout the country, infecting nearly a million civilian police officers.

The Police Perspective

For most officers who view police use of force events, the common denominator is simple, self-evident and almost always the same: A subject refusing to cooperate, disobeying and/or flat out attacking an officer. In every single case of a police shooting, the other person was the catalyst and sole reason the event culminated in the police officer pulling and firing a weapon. If people would cooperate and comply there would be zero police shootings of citizens. That’s what most cops think.

As far as the Washington Post statistics and the 978 shot and killed annually? The number, they believe, is taken out of context. According to the FBI, over 60 million people have contact with the police every year at least once. The police make approximately 30 million arrests. If you take either one of those numbers and look at the percentage of people shot and killed compared to both the contacts and type of contacts, the numbers prove that officers do their absolute best to avoid violent confrontations.


  • 60 million contacts: 0.00163 of those contacts result in people dying at the hands of the police.
  • 30 million arrests: 0.00326 of those arrested are shot and killed by the police.

To the police the numbers are compelling evidence that the police rarely use force and do their best to avoid using force.

How Should We View Police Shootings: The Moments

To me, the facts matter. But as several research projects have determined over the past few years, facts don’t really change opinions.

To fix a problem, it’s essential to first figure out if there is one. And if there is, no matter how small, then adjustments and necessary changes can be made. Simply screaming and accusing, exaggerating and amplifying, serves no purpose other than to widen the divide.

So in an effort to move forward and away from the shackles of the aforementioned perspectives, let’s examine the intricacies, the complexity, and the reality of police shootings.

In my opinion there are four ways to view, or classify, a police shooting:

  1. Legally justifiable;
  2. Legally justifiable, but avoidable;
  3. Legally unjustified; and
  4. Criminal.

Legally justifiable:
Unavoidable and inevitable because of the offender’s conduct, which created the absolute need for an officer at that moment to take immediate deadly force action.

Legally justifiable, but avoidable: At the moment force was used it was objectively reasonable, necessary, and legally justified based on the standard set by the Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989) decision. There was no malice or evil intent on the part of the officer. The officer needed to use deadly force in order to save his/her life or the life of others because of the imminent danger posed by the offender. That said, in hindsight, could the officer have done something different that would have led to, perhaps, a different moment?  Did the officer have to move towards when backing away may have lowered the immediate stress level of all involved? Easy to see in hindsight (and, yes, I know for legal purposes, Graham says hindsight is to be disregarded). Still, as professionals, we owe it to ourselves to see how things might have gone better.

Legally unjustified: Gross negligence on the officer’s part, but there was also true belief by the officer that—at the moment—his/her use of force was necessary and justified. There was no intention to commit a crime and there was no belief on the part of the shooting officer that his or her action would be considered outside of the law and/or the legal parameters concerning the use of force, even if they were, ultimately, determined to be so. However, when that moment is viewed objectively, it did not meet the standards that allow for the use of deadly force. This type of force event is often the result of an officer overreacting to a stress event.

Criminal: The use of force was outside any manner of reasonableness and/or the shooting was an intentionally criminal act at the moment the force was used.


I try my best to be objective and reasonable when I analyze a police shooting. The vast majority that I’ve seen I place in the first category. This category is followed in frequency by the second–that is, justifiable but avoidable. Very few exist in the third category and almost none in the fourth.

Therefore, I think it is incumbent upon American police to train for that second category: What can I do to reduce stress, both in myself and in the suspect? What actions might I take to reduce the stakes of the call (e.g., slow down, call for back up, retreat)? By addressing this second category, I believe we implicitly address the third (legally unjustified). And as for the fourth, despite what our critics would have you believe, I just don’t see it.

Can we improve? That is the very premise of this article. But we must do so in good faith.

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