Politics The difficult realities of lethal force
Lawmakers vent at hearing over lack of clarity for who oversees Capitol Hill security
Months after the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Republican from Georgia, made clear that confusion remains over who ultimately oversees Capitol Hill security. © house administration United States Capitol Police Inspector Michael Bolton is seen on footage of Thursday's hearing. During a hearing in front of the House Administration Committee on Thursday, Loudermilk asked the United States Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton who has oversight of the Capitol Police Board, the panel to which the Capitol Police chief reports. "I do not know that, sir," Bolton replied.
The shooting of 16-year-old 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 , as a warning. President Biden has long maintained that .
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.
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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.
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These dangers were evident in 2019 when 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 . 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 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.
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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. . 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.
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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 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 were armed or otherwise dangerous. , 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 .
Text of Biden's first address to joint session of Congress .
Text of President Joe Biden's first address to a join session of Congress, as provided by the White House: Madame Speaker. Madame Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time. Madame Speaker. Madame Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.