When Is It Legal for Police to Kill You?

© Mark Duncan/AP Photo This still image taken from a surveillance video played at a news conference held by Cleveland Police, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, shows Cleveland police officers arriving at Cudell Park on a report of a man with a gun…
© Mark Duncan/AP Photo This still image taken from a surveillance video played at a news conference held by Cleveland Police, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, shows Cleveland police officers arriving at Cudell Park on a report of a man with a gun…

Charging a police officer with a crime after the death of a civilian is incredibly rare — even when there’s video evidence. And a big part of that is because of the legal standards for when a cop is allowed to use deadly force: what the public sees as crossing the line may not actually break the law, and even the most reliable video evidence might not show an officer actually committing a crime. 

There are plenty of guidelines for use of force by police, but it often boils down to what the officer believed when the force was used (something that is notoriously difficult to standardize), regardless of how much of a threat actually existed. Here’s how prosecutors draw the line between a justifiable use of force by a police officer, and a crime.

1. How do you determine if a police officer was justified in using deadly force?

When a police officer kills someone on the job, there’s a two-track investigation. That’s because there are actually two different sets of standards that govern when a police officer can use deadly force.

One set of standards is state law, informed by a couple of Supreme Court precedents that lay out the circumstances under which law enforcement officers are justified in using lethal force on suspects.

The other set of standards is the policy of the officer’s police department, which tells its employees when it is and isn’t appropriate for them to use force.

If a police officer were to murder someone in cold blood while on the job, he wouldn’t just be breaking the law — he’d be violating his equivalent of an employee handbook. But something can be against a police department’s policy without being against the law. When New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a chokehold (ultimately killing him) in July 2014, for example, he violated the NYPD’s policy on use of force — but there isn’t a law on the books saying a police officer can’t use a chokehold.

So when a cop uses deadly force in an officer-involved death, there’s a standard criminal investigation: detectives collect evidence and present it to the local prosecutor. The prosecutor then determines whether the killing fits the standards in state law for permissible homicide. If it doesn’t, then a crime has been committed, and the prosecutor’s job becomes figuring out which crime it was and whether there’s enough evidence to charge the officer with it.

But there’s also an internal investigation within the cop’s department to evaluate whether the incident violated its use-of-force policy. Many departments’ policies are stricter than state law — but an officer can’t be charged with a crime just for violating the policy. He or she can, however, be fired for it.

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Source: Vox.com | Dara Lind