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Can Cops Shoot a Fleeing Suspect in the Back?

by Dale Chappell

Decades ago, it was acceptable, even laudable, for a cop to shoot an unarmed fleeing suspect in the back. That opinion, however, has changed over the years, but rarely does such an incident result in criminal charges against the officer. There are several reasons for that.

The law previously allowed an officer to shoot a suspect who was about to flee, even if he was unarmed. But in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court held that shooting a suspect who is not an imminent threat violates the person’s constitutional rights. Instead, officers can use lethal force on a fleeing suspect only if they have reasonable grounds to believe that the suspect is a danger to others.

A few years later, the Court weakened its decision and held that whether an officer had reasonable grounds to shoot a fleeing suspect depends on the officer’s perspective at the time of the shooting, not on 20/20 hindsight. In other words, a jury must consider what was going through the officer’s head during that split-second decision before he shot the suspect.

In addition, each state makes its own laws on when officers can use deadly force. There is no federal lethal-force law. While the Supreme Court has tried to give some guidance in this area, a 2015 Amnesty International report showed that many state laws fall short of Supreme Court standards. Prosecutors are typically left to rely on the use-of-force procedures drawn up by the police department itself to determine whether to press charges against the officer. No state, however, has limited use-of-force to be used only as a “last resort.”

Prosecutors can and do charge cops who shoot fleeing suspects, however. In June, the district attorney in East Pittsburgh charged officer Michael Rosfeld with criminal homicide in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, who was unarmed, as he fled from a traffic stop. And in Georgia, an officer was fired and jailed for shooting a fleeing black man. Two more shootings of fleeing suspects, one in Galveston, the other in Minneapolis, may result in charges against the officers. But these cases appear to represent the exception rather than the rule.

The answer to whether cops can shoot a fleeing unarmed suspect cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” However, in many cases, the answer seems to being leaning in favor of officers being permitted to do so in the current legal and social environment. 



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