Attorney General October 17, 1995 Memorandum on Resolution 14 (Attachment)

Commentary Regarding the Use of Deadly Force
in Non-Custodial Situations

I. Introduction

The Department of Justice hereby establishes a uniform policy with respect to the use of deadly force in both custodial and non-custodial situations. This commentary does not address the use of deadly force upon subjects relinquished to persons or facilities responsible for detention or incarceration. All other uses of deadly force are addressed in this commentary. The policy and this commentary provide practical guidance for officers who must make grave decisions regarding the use of deadly force under the most trying of circumstances. The policy also is intended to maintain uniformity among the various Departmental components and to achieve uniform standards and training with respect to the use of deadly force. Although each component may still develop and conduct its own training on deadly force, the policy governs the use of deadly force under all circumstances.

The policy is the product of discussion among the various law enforcement agencies whose personnel are called upon to make decisions regarding the use of deadly force, of review of the current policies governing the use of force, and of advice of legal counsel from various Department components, including those charged with law enforcement, defense of civil actions filed against the government, enforcement of civil rights, and provision of constitutional advice. In developing the policy, it became apparent that decisional law provides only limited guidance regarding the use of deadly force.(1) In addition, as a matter of principle, the Department deliberately did not formulate this policy to authorize force up to constitutional or other legal limits.(2)

II. Definitions

Deadly force is the use of any force that is likely to cause death or serious physical injury. When an officer of the Department uses such force in non-custodial situations, it may only be done consistent with this policy. Force that is not likely to cause death or serious physical injury, but unexpectedly results in such harm or death, is not governed by this policy.

Probable cause, reason to believe or a reasonable belief, for purposes of this policy, means facts and circumstances, including the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, known to the officer at the time of the use of deadly force, that would cause a reasonable officer to conclude that the point at issue is probably true. The reasonableness of a belief or decision must be viewed from the perspective of the officer on the scene, who may often be forced to make split-second decisions in circumstances that are tense, unpredictable, and rapidly evolving. Reasonableness is not to be viewed from the calm vantage point of hindsight.

III. Principles on Use of Deadly Force

The Department of Justice recognizes and respects the integrity and paramount value of all human life. Consistent with that primary value, but beyond the scope of the principles articulated here, is the Department's full commitment to take all reasonable steps to prevent the need to use deadly force, as reflected in Departmental training and procedures. Yet even the best prevention policies are on occasion insufficient, as when an officer serving a warrant or conducting surveillance is confronted with a threat to his or her life. With respect to these situations and in keeping with the value of protecting all human life, the touchstone of the Department's policy regarding the use of deadly force is necessity. Use of deadly force must be objectively reasonable under all the circumstances known to the officer at the time.

The necessity to use deadly force arises when all other available means of preventing imminent and grave danger to officers or other persons have failed or would be likely to fail. Thus, employing deadly force is permissible when there is no safe alternative to using such force, and without it the officer or others would face imminent and grave danger. An officer is not required to place him or herself, another officer, a suspect, or the public in unreasonable danger of death or serious physical injury before using deadly force.

Determining whether deadly force is necessary may involve instantaneous decisions that encompass many factors, such as the likelihood that the subject will use deadly force on the officer or others if such force is not used by the officer; the officer's knowledge that the subject will likely acquiesce in arrest or recapture if the officer uses lesser force or no force at all; the capabilities of the subject; the subject's access to cover and weapons; the presence of other persons who may be at risk if force is or is not used; and the nature and the severity of the subject's criminal conduct or the danger posed.

Deadly force should never be used upon mere suspicion that a crime, no matter how serious, was committed, or simply upon the officer's determination that probable cause would support the arrest of the person being pursued or arrested for the commission of a crime. Deadly force may be used to prevent the escape of a fleeing subject if there is probable cause to believe: (1) the subject has committed a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury or death, and (2) the escape of the subject would pose an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.

As used in this policy, "imminent" has a broader meaning than "immediate" or "instantaneous." The concept of "imminent" should be understood to be elastic, that is, involving a period of time dependent on the circumstances, rather than the fixed point of time implicit in the concept of "immediate" or "instantaneous." Thus, a subject may pose an imminent danger even if he or she is not at that very moment pointing a weapon at the officer if, for example, he or she has a weapon within reach or is running for cover carrying a weapon or running to a place where the officer has reason to believe a weapon is available.

IV. Lesser Means

Intermediate force. If force lesser than deadly force could reasonably be expected to accomplish the same end, such as the arrest of a dangerous fleeing subject, without unreasonably increasing the danger to the officer or to others, then it must be used. Deadly force is not permissible in such circumstances, although the reasonableness of the officer's understanding at the time deadly force was used shall be the benchmark for assessing applications of this policy.

Verbal warnings. Before using deadly force, if feasible, officers will audibly command the subject to submit to their authority. Implicit in this requirement is the concept that officers will give the subject an opportunity to submit to such command unless danger is increased thereby. However, if giving such a command would itself pose a risk of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others, it need not be given.

Warning shots and shooting to disable. Warning shots are not authorized. Discharge of a firearm is usually considered to be permissible only under the same circumstances when deadly force may be used--that is, only when necessary to prevent loss of life or serious physical injury. Warning shots themselves may pose dangers to the officer or others.

Attempts to shoot to wound or to injure are unrealistic and, because of high miss rates and poor stopping effectiveness, can prove dangerous for the officer and others. Therefore, shooting merely to disable is strongly discouraged.

Motor vehicles and their occupants. Experience has demonstrated that the use of firearms to disable moving vehicles is either unsuccessful or results in an uncontrolled risk to the safety of officers or others. Shooting to disable a moving motor vehicle is forbidden.

An officer who has reason to believe that a driver or occupant poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others may fire at the driver or an occupant only when such shots are necessary to avoid death or serious physical injury to the officer or another, and only if the public safety benefits of using such force reasonably appear to outweigh any risks to the officer or the public, such as from a crash, ricocheting bullets, or return fire from the subject or another person in the vehicle.

Except in rare circumstances, the danger permitting the officer to use deadly force must be by means other than the vehicle.

V. Miscellaneous

Deadly force may be directed against dogs or other vicious animals when necessary in self-defense or defense of others.

Nothing in this policy and the attached commentary is intended to create or does create an enforceable legal right or private right of action.

1. Many issues addressed in the policy and this memorandum have never been addressed in reported decisions or the law remains unresolved. Courts would step outside their proper role if they formulated detailed policies with respect to the procedures governing deadly force; in contrast, the Department has the discretion to determine what the policy should be and to provide guidance to its employees with regard to these solemn issues. Cases arise in procedural postures--typically civil tort or civil rights actions, or motions to dismiss or overturn criminal charges or convictions--in which a wrongful act on the part of the government may not lead to recovery or sanctions. As a result, the court often does not reach the question of whether the use of force was wrongful.

2. The leading Fourth Amendment cases in this area are Tennessee v. Garner, 47 U.S. 1 (1985) and Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).


Resolution 14

Attachment A: (Policy Statement on the Use of Deadly Force)

Attachment B: (Commentary on the Use of Deadly Force in Custodial Situations)


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