Colin McCallin Aug. 22, 2014

The nation is watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri. A black, unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer. The officer shot the teenager 6 times. A subsequent shooting of a man by St. Louis police officers is also under investigation.

These incidents have reinvigorated the nationwide discussion of several issues surrounding it; racism, gun control, and the militarization of police forces among others. Officer-involved shootings are very complex, and there are problems inherent in investigating them.

As a threshold matter, when can police use lethal force? The general standard is that lethal force is only appropriate if the life of the police officer or someone else is in jeopardy. Despite the Hollywood misconceptions, police cannot fire upon fleeing suspects, nor can they wound a subject to immobilize him- the “one in the leg” approach is never authorized. Basically, police officers can only shoot their gun if they absolutely have no other choice.

Any officer-involved shooting is typically investigated by the district attorney’s office in the district where the shooting took place. This, of course, is to theoretically eliminate any bias or influence that would come from a police department investigating its own officer. Practically speaking, however, this bias doesn’t go away. The district attorney’s office has a symbiotic relationship with the police and the DA faces enormous pressure to justify an officer’s conduct in a shooting. The DA and the police work hand in hand to prosecute criminals, and a finding against an officer for use of unreasonable force undermines the criminal justice process and shakes public confidence in law enforcement. Every case the officer or his agency ever handled would subsequently come under scrutiny, which also exposes both the DA and police agency to lawsuits and years of litigation. Such a finding can also cause a rift between the DA’s office and police agency involved, which complicates future cooperation between them. Even though 400 people are killed by police every year, the vast majority of those shootings are found to be justified partly due to these considerations.

Police officers have a very difficult job. When a perceived threat to an officer arises, he typically does not have a lot of time to make a decision about how to react. A common example is when an officer shoots at a suspect believing that a suspect is going for a weapon, when the suspect really unarmed. These cases end in tragedy, and often the police officer did the best he could with the information he had. However, legitimate questions arise about an officer’s conduct after incidents like those in Missouri, and despite what the district attorney might find in these cases, the general public is already weighing in. Sometimes cops cross the line, and when they do, they must be held accountable. We are hopeful that, whatever the outcomes in Missouri, the incidents will move police agencies across the country to focus on non-lethal force options and better training to deal with these critical situations.