The Police and Justified Homicide

oscar grant station

Officers respond the scene of the shooting of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, CA on January 1, 2009.

Police officers know the risks associated with joining the force. While the motto of most departments is to “protect and serve” fellow citizens, officers often need to apply this principle to themselves – sometimes by deadly means. According to the FBI, the killing of a suspect in a potentially life-threatening situation is called “justifiable homicide”.

Sure, officers need to protect themselves, but just how often is killing justified? The latest FBI data shows that in 2011, 393 cases of justifiable homicide were committed by law enforcement officers. See the report here. Against whom you might ask? I was quite suspect of this myself, as a footnote at the bottom of the graph states, “The killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” a

So wait, 100% of the time officers felt threatened and killed a suspect, the suspect turned out to be a felon? This doesn’t seem accurate. One reason for this might be that reporting justifiable homicides is completely VOLUNTARY. In most cases, the shooter’s word is the only available evidence. b

Now I know many of you will jump to the conclusion that police officers are deliberately lying to census takers about the number of “felons” they’ve killed in the line of duty. While this may be true in some cases (see this Detroit News article about underreporting), it’s certainly not the only explanation for such behavior. This recent Washington Post article reports that Florida’s average number of justified homicides per year has risen to 36 – 24 more than before Stand Your Ground laws were enacted in 2005. c & d

Stand Your Ground laws allow citizens to defend themselves if they feel threatened by using force – usually with the help of a weapon. These laws are found nationwide, although only in certain communities where they have been enacted. Unlike a justifiable homicide – where the individual must provide sufficient, fact-based evidence without any reasonable doubt, Stand Your Ground cases don’t need nearly as much evidence in a courtroom.

Many suspect that the increase of murder rates in Florida and around the country are somehow correlated to the enactment of Stand Your Ground laws. How is this possible? Evidence regarding firearm use in self defense is relatively unreliable. This brings up even more questions. Do officers fully investigate all of their cases? Do officers have the right resources to help aid their effectiveness in crime fighting? Is justified homicide by police acceptable in a post 9/11 society?

Here’s something to think about: if George Zimmerman hadn’t followed and shot Trayvon Martin, how would the police have responded to the situation?

The enactment of Stand Your Ground laws presents an interesting effect in regards to “justified violence”. Is it more practical to have citizens defend themselves, or to have the police take care of it? An article written earlier this year stated that Chicago police officers are working overtime in “hot” zones of the city in an effort to reduce gang related violence. Subsequently, homicide rates in Chicago have experienced a “notable drop” since the efforts by officers. f

It’s no secret that the balance between police officers and civilians plays a huge role in homicide rates around the country. With laws allowing citizens to defend themselves, violence takes a whole new role in communities. Instead of police officers using “justified” violence at the discretion of the law, citizens are able to take the law into their own hands. While it’s easy to accuse police officers of wrongfully committing murder, one must consider all the circumstances that an officer deals with in the line of duty.

Sources (identified by bold italic letters, I’m never in the mood for an MLA works cited page):








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