When cops kill: The psychology of deadly-force encounters

The law does not require police officers to utilize the absolute minimum force necessary in a threat situation — only that the level of force used be reasonable to control a deadly threat


In the wake of several well-publicized cases of deadly force encounters between police and minority citizens, now is a good time to review some of the findings from police psychology and Force Science research on police use of force and the psychology of deadly force encounters.

One common misconception among our citizens is that deadly force automatically equates to excessive force. In a police-citizen encounter, necessary force is the amount of force required to control a given situation so as to preserve the life and maintain the safety of police officers or vulnerable civilians at the scene — excessive force is any use of force beyond that required for safety and control. 

The severity and intensity of the force used — from verbal commands, to handcuffing, to baton, pepper spray, TASER, or firearm — should be based solely on the dangerousness of the suspect’s present actions and should have nothing to do with the suspect’s attitude or the presumed moral “blameworthiness” of the crime in question. Necessary force is for protection, not punishment. The law does not require police to utilize the absolute minimum force necessary in a threat — only that the level of force be reasonable to control a deadly threat. Officers are charged with reacting to the imminent and credible threat of violence by the suspect — they are not required to wait until the suspect has already begun to commit a violent act, because by then it would be too late to prevent death or injury to the victim. We must somehow better communicate that to our communities. 

Defining “Armed”
Estimating threat level is related to defining an “armed” person. Many people assume that unless the suspect proportionately matches the police in lethal firepower, deadly force used by police in such circumstances violates some street-chivalrous notion of a fair fight. 

But every cop knows just how dangerous a citizen can be if enraged, intoxicated, delusional, young-and-dumb, or some combination. 
A person lying prostrate and spread-eagle on the ground ten feet from you, head facing away, can be on top of your chest with their hands around your throat in less than three seconds. 

Any nearby object can become a lethal weapon. I’ve interviewed cops who have been choked with a bathrobe sash, brained with a flowerpot, had shop tools or industrial chemicals hurled at them, been clawed, bitten, spit on, peed on, and worse. Even full use of an assailant’s own body is not necessary: in another case, a suspect on the ground in full hogtie restraint was able to twist around and chomp on an officer’s ankle.

Judging Bullet Count
The average police officer (or soldier, for that matter) in a live-fire scenario misses his intended target at least as often he hits it. So the rule for deadly force encounters is simple: do not use deadly force unless there is absolutely no choice — but once the decision has been made, be sure the force is as deadly as possible, as quickly as possible. 

Why? Because, to prevent a dangerous suspect from killing or injuring someone else, the primary goal is not to wound the assailant, or even to kill him, but to stop him. If you shoot a charging suspect four times, it won’t make much difference if he dies of his injuries several seconds after he’s had a chance to crush your skull with a brick. Once the assailant presents a clear and credible threat, you want him down immediately, and while four bullets may not swiftly drop an aggressive juggernaut, 40 bullets might.

Nevertheless, it’s impressive how often police officers restrain themselves from utilizing deadly force even in circumstances where it would be justified. The average annual rate of use of deadly force by U.S. law enforcement is about 360 cases a year. Compare that with over 60 thousand reported cases of citizen assaults on officers each year, approximately 11 thousand of which involve a lethal weapon. 

FBI data reveal that approximately 85 percent of officers killed in the line of duty never discharged their service weapons. Far from being trigger-happy gunslingers, the evidence suggests that many police officers hesitate in using justifiable deadly force, even when it puts their own safety in jeopardy. 

Deadly Force Spiral
It’s rare for a firefight or grappling match with a suspect to begin immediately. Almost always, there is an emotional and behavioral buildup that precedes the escalation to a violent confrontation. Officers understand the inherent unpredictability of most encounters, so they naturally are hypervigilant when facing physically imposing or citizens. 

Police officers are the only nonmilitary professionals who are mandated to use, when necessary, coercive physical force against citizens. What many of these citizens don’t realize is that, in most circumstances the law requires them to obey a legitimate command from a police officer. Officers come to expect this compliance, so when a citizen openly defies a police officer, the potential for escalation increases. All it takes is a verbal or behavioral spark to ignite a use-of-force incident.

Ironically, the trend of utilizing less-than-lethal force may become the basis for even more strident accusations of police brutality. Officers use nonlethal takedown procedures on a subject — including the infamous chokehold — in lieu of shooting, TASERing, or clubbing him,then, if there is an in-custody death, the cops may  be vilified for callously manhandling the subject.

Deadly Force and Race
Let’s be realistic: deadly force encounters often involve white officers and minority citizens, and those deadly-force encounters are the often the most emotionally charged of all incidents. But this is due primarily to the demographics of many high-crime communities, which typically have a predominantly Anglo police department and a predominantly minority citizenry. In these communities, young black males are more likely to be affected by deadly force encounters because young males of any race or ethnicity are disproportionately involved in illegal activity and aggressive confrontations of any sort. In white neighborhoods, the likely culprits will be young white males, and in black neighborhoods, it will be young black males.

Consciously or subconsciously, many officers will pay closer attention to young minority males engaged in certain types of suspicious actions because the cops’ instinct, training, and experience has taught them that these situations carry a high probability for ongoing or potential illegal activity. However, absent the suspicious behavior itself, there is no evidence that white cops systematically “target” minority citizens for their race. 

Almost always, deadly force involves a combination of pre-primed suspicion (white cops, minority suspects), an escalating behavioral dance (citizens’ refusal to obey orders, verbal taunts, and confrontational gestures lead to police use of authoritarian tactics), non-optimum physical environment (poor lighting, bad weather, misidentification of a nonlethal object for a weapon), and a tipping point at which officers feel genuinely threatened and then react — as their judgment and training tell them to do — with deadly force. 

Deadly Force and Law Enforcement Culture
However, police culture is still important. Within a given law enforcement agency, a command structure and managerial attitude that ignores low-level breaches of police ethics and professionalism is more likely to tolerate dysfunctional and corrupt cops who engage in all varieties of misconduct, from petty theft to excessive force. 

All things being equal, three factors have been found to be associated with fewer police deadly force encounters in a community:

1. Higher overall educational level of the rank and file patrol force
2. Higher investment in mental health response and verbal crisis intervention training
3. Greater efforts at police-community relationship building

In most circumstances, police kill citizens when they believe they have no choice in order to preserve human life — their own and/or that of other citizens. Sometimes there are errors in perception, judgment, or procedure, and these must be vigorously investigated and corrected. There also exist some corrupt cops, racist cops, and incompetent cops, which is why police departments have Internal Affairs divisions: to minimize the effect of these bad apples on their peers and on their communities. 

But it is unfair and unproductive for citizens to assume that all adverse outcomes of police-citizen encounters automatically signal callousness or maliciousness on the part of the officers involved. The important thing for officers to realize is that for every complaining citizen and angry protester, there is a silent majority of citizens — in any community — who appreciate what most officers are trying to do every day to keep them safe.

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