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When Should Police Use Deadly Force?


Among the questions raised by the shooting is this one: Were the officers justified in using deadly force? To talk about how police are trained to respond in a case like this, I'm joined by Eugene O'Donnell. He's a former New York City police officer, later a prosecutor and police trainer. Welcome to the program.

EUGENE O'DONNELL: Thanks. Good to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And I said a case like this, but there is key distinction here about this case. We're talking about a chase that started at White House. It ended at the Capitol and involved U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Capitol police officers, who I imagine would have their own specific rules of engagement.

O'DONNELL: Right. I'm not even sure this qualifies as civilian law enforcement when you hear people making those comparisons. Really, you're in essentially a de facto warzone with the federal agents that are on a war-footing. And so these comparisons that this is somehow like policing in Manhattan, I think, are off base. Presumably, whether the agencies acknowledge it or not, there's a mindset. There's training. There's protocols, written or unwritten, that have to account for the attractiveness of this particular location for a broad range of people, terrorists, crazy people. So they have to keep that in - certainly in their minds if it's not written down somewhere.

BLOCK: Well, in general, for police departments, what would the guiding principle be on using deadly force and, in particular, in the case of a fleeing car?

O'DONNELL: Again, with the caveat this is a checkpoint, and there may be rules about how you engage people who are not cooperative at that - in that setting for ordinary street police people. Different rules in every state, but the general rule is if you reasonably suspect your life or somebody else's life or physical well-being is endangered, you can use deadly physical force to stop or to prevent an attack on you or a third person.

BLOCK: Would officers ever be trained to disable the car itself, shoot out the tires, say, as opposed to shooting the driver?

O'DONNELL: For the most parts, civilian law enforcement would not because the discharge of a firearm is a dangerous - inherently dangerous activity, and you'd require quite a skill set to even try to do that. It is possible. In this particular venue, they may have people that have more skills in shooting. But your ordinary police people would only be using firearms generally defensively to defend themselves or other people, not offensively and usually not as some sort of weapon to stop a vehicle because the hit rate for most civilian law enforcement officers when they're firing at armed adversaries is quite low. You can imagine how much lower it would be in a situation like this where a vehicle is erratically being driven at a high speed.

BLOCK: According to the police accounts that have been released so far, at the first checkpoint, which was near the White House, the driver struck a barrier and then she struck a police officer. Would that mean that the car is, at that point, considered a deadly weapon?

O'DONNELL: Everything is context, so it's not just what happened. It's where it happened, when it happened, and the actions of the person in response to the officers. This is clearly when you're standing there and watching it, if you're a law enforcement officer, you know that the person no doubt knows where the person is and how secure the place is. And it's sort of a premeditated, brazen kind of attack, so it wouldn't be unreasonable for officers to think the worst in that situation and to be raised up in a way they might not be. Even if you had that exact same set of facts, which is down the street a few miles in some part of Washington that didn't involve these high-profile buildings, the reasonableness of their actions in that might very well be different than in this particular situation.

BLOCK: There's another factor here, and it's a troubling one, which is the driver had a very young child in her car as it turned out. Does that change anything?

O'DONNELL: Typically, it would if it was known. Law enforcement generally cannot be using deadly force if it unnecessarily dangers the life of an innocent person. But that's a really tricky thing to try to figure out whether in this set of circumstances the officers had this presence of mind. And here, again, you can't be blind to the realities that this one of the most targeted areas of real estate on Earth. So there is - as much as you can kind of try to apply rules, this is a particularly unique event.

BLOCK: That's Eugene O'Donnell, former New York City police officer and police trainer. He's now a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Professor O'Donnell, thanks very much.

O'DONNELL: Thanks, Melissa. Have a good day.


This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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