According to data compiled at the Bowling Green State University Criminal Justice Program, each year in the United States, somewhere between 900 and 1,000 people are shot and killed by police. From that data, a couple of patterns have emerged: Those killed are disproportionately Black and, more often than not, blamed for their own deaths or demonized in the process.
Even as outrage has mounted over deaths at the hands of the police, it remains notoriously difficult in the United States to hold officers accountable. Until now, they had both public opinion and the law on their side.
One of the factors coming into play is the clout of police unions. Besides negotiating strong employment contracts, unions often donate heavily to political campaigns to gain and maintain political support. Prosecutors, who depend heavily on police testimonies to make their case and voters at election time to keep their jobs, are reluctant to take action against officers with whom they must work closely.
Then, there’s the reluctance of investigators and juries to second-guess an officer’s split-second decision and the wide latitude the law gives police officers to use force. The cases date back nearly 50 years, and while they’re in the academy, every police trainee learns exactly how far they can stretch these rules, and how to use them.
In 1974, a 15-year-old Black boy was shot and killed by a Memphis police officer while fleeing a home where the teen had allegedly broken a window and made off with a purse containing $10. It was a crime punishable by time in juvenile detention. But the officer, who was also Black, admitted that due to a flashlight, he could see that the teen did not have a weapon in his hands.
The boy’s father filed suit and pursued the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1985 invalidating the use of deadly force to prevent escapes. Instead, officers could only use deadly force when they were in fear for their life or that of others.
A few years later, 1989, the Supreme Court took up another case, Graham v. Connor, which clarified the standard for a justifiable shooting. The court ruled officers could use deadly force when an objectively reasonable officer would perceive a deadly risk, not simply when they felt afraid.
The Supreme Court imagined the reasonableness standard as “objective” in light of the full set of “facts and circumstances confronting” the officer at the time deadly force is used. In practice, the reasonableness of deadly force is fluid and contested.
Flexible definitions have permitted prosecutors to claim police had “objectively reasonable” fears of cars that were driving away, unarmed people running away and even people with their hands up.