“Police Kill Unarmed (Usually Black) Man!” Headlines like this are all too common, and almost always misleading. The Media use them because they are supportive of favorite media narratives, particularly the “evil cops wantonly kill innocent black men” narrative. They are also calculated to provoke outrage: “What?! He was unarmed?! Why those dirty cops!”
In a sense, it also plays into the Hollywood myth of the “fair” gunfight. Unless opponents square off on the dusty western town’s main street at high noon, their handguns holstered, and shoot it out like men, it’s somehow dishonorable and must be murder.
Unfortunately for the narrative, but fortunately for everyone else, whether an attacker was unarmed–was not brandishing an obvious weapon as they attacked–generally doesn’t matter. This is even–generally–more applicable to police shootings.
To understand, let’s review the general criteria for the use of force, particularly, the use of deadly force. Keep in mind that each state has its own very specific laws on these issues, and it’s the responsibility of everyone to be aware of those laws, because if one finds themselves defending their life, it is those laws that will applied to determine whether that defense was lawful self-defense, hence justifiable homicide, or some degree of murder.
One may use deadly force in self defense when:
Means: An attacker (or attackers) has the present means to cause serious bodily injury or death.
Opportunity: An attacker is within range to use that means.
Jeopardy: An attacker is actually acting on their threat, or has clearly communicated their intention to act upon it. Jeopardy must be imminent, something that’s going to happen in mere fractions of a second or in mere seconds, or is already happening. Potential future threats do not place one in jeopardy.
Two additional factors that are of equal importance are innocence and proportionality:
Innocence: To legitimately claim self-defense, one must be an innocent victim of an assault. Willfully engaging in mutual combat–a fistfight, for example–generally removes innocence. One may not, in any way, provoke, incite, or bait another into an assault and then cry self-defense if on the losing side.
Proportionality: The force used against an attacker must be in proportion to the force applied against the innocent victim. If someone slaps you on the face and shows no further sign of pressing the assault, and you stab them in the chest with a knife, that response was out of all proportion to the threat and the force used against you. You have become the attacker and innocence has shifted to the man that slapped you. If, however, someone initiates and sustains a potential deadly attack against you, you may use deadly force to save yourself.
Obviously, there is a very wide range of possibilities here, but these factors help us to understand the issues. In a deadly force encounter, an unarmed man of average size and strength can seriously injure, even kill, a woman of average size and strength. Attacked by a stranger who presses the attack, a woman can reasonably believe that if she does not use deadly force–her concealed handgun–she will be seriously injured or killed. Rape is considered to be serious bodily injury.
Disparity of force is also a significant factor. Most human beings have not engaged in sustained physical struggles–fights. Most human beings have not trained for such combat. Therefore, the average man, regardless of size and weight, attacked by a criminal experienced in attacking his fellow man, is at a real disadvantage, a disadvantage that could easily result in serious bodily injury or death.
Fighting in the real world is nothing like TV and the movies. TV/movie fights are choreography. They are carefully rehearsed and every blow practiced, every block, every punch and kick, carefully planned and executed to look as real as possible without injuring bankable movie stars. Punches and kicks do not sound as they do on the screen. Often, they don’t sound like much of anything, certainly nothing familiar and recognizable.
Real attacks are fast, ugly and brutal. Bones are crushed and broken by single blows. Teeth are shattered, eyeballs and genitals are ruptured. Facial bones fractured. In seconds, people can be permanently disfigured, crippled, their intellects and personalities destroyed. People die from single blows delivered in an assault.
It’s also important to realize that the standard applied will be what a reasonable man would do in the same circumstances. This is not, however, an inherently unreasonable standard. In Brown v. United States (1921), Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:
Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.
In other words, one will be judged based on what a reasonable person could have known and believed at the time and under those circumstances.
The law is generally realistic and reasonable in these matters, but that doesn’t mean that one will not, though innocent, find themselves on trial for murder, their very life hanging in the balance. Just ask George Zimmerman about that, or former Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson. If not for an honest and honorable local prosecutor, Wilson might well have found himself on trial as Zimmerman did, and under the political climate of Ferguson, might have been convicted. Even so, he lost his career and probably, any possibility of privacy for the remainder of his life.
This has been, of necessity, a whirlwind tour of a body of law and experience that can easily fill volumes. I recommend Andrew Branca’s The Law Of Self Defense, which is the most complete and accurate guide currently in print. Any citizen should avoid assaults and fights, or if reasonably possible, do a pythonesque King Arthur (run away, run away!).
Police officers find themselves in unique circumstances. In most states, citizens don’t have to defend themselves against the accusation that they could have run away when threatened. Police officers usually have no such choice to make. The very nature of their jobs requires that they put themselves in harm’s way. The very nature of making an arrest–putting hands on someone and restraining them–would be, if done by a non-police officer, an assault. When police officers are making a lawful arrest, they may use any force necessary to make that arrest, up to and including deadly force. However, proportionality still applies, even then.
Keep in mind that most police officers are not martial artists. To be sure, police officers are taught a small number of restraining and striking techniques, empty-handed and with their batons. They normally learn these things very early in their careers, during basic training, and might have the occasional refresher course over the years, but unless they have an individual interest in studying and practicing a martial art, few, if any, develop any real proficiency.
There is nothing about becoming a police officer that makes one superhuman. Police officers are as mortal as anyone, and they can survive and do their jobs only because most people are willing to obey the law, and the lawful orders of police officers, most of the time. When the police meet someone that is not willing to honor this part of the social compact, they may be in real trouble.
Police officers are taught that in any fight, there is always a gun present: theirs. They are taught that when an officer’s gun is taken from him, at least 80% of the time, they are going to be shot with that gun (some studies put the statistic as high as 90%), which are ugly odds indeed. Any police officer must understand that anyone that attacks them, a uniformed, armed police officer, must be assumed to have deadly intent. What possible innocent motive could exist? Any police officer must understand that regardless of their skill level in unarmed combat, they can lose a fight, and their life, in a second. They must also understand that police officers do not engage in fights. They enforce the law.
Former Officer Darren Wilson’s experience provides a good example (the Michael Brown archive is available here). Sitting in his police car, he thought he was merely going to ask Michael Brown to get out of the street and walk on the sidewalk. Brown attacked him, pinned him in his car, repeatedly punched him, and tried to take his handgun. It was only Wilson’s triggering of the gun that caused Brown to momentarily pause the attack. At this point, Wilson was obligated, if he could, to arrest Brown for assault on a police officer, and potentially, attempted murder, both felonies.
Brown ran, Wilson ordered him to stop. Rather than fleeing, which he easily could have done, Brown turned and initiated a berserker charge directly at Wilson. Having been battered by Brown seconds earlier, realizing that Brown was much more violent and stronger than him, Wilson had mere seconds to stop Brown by the only means available to him: his handgun, and it was only the final shot he fired, which by mere luck struck Brown in the head, that dropped him scant feet from Wilson.
Brown was unarmed, in the sense that he was not holding a weapon in his hands, but he did represent an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to Wilson by virtual of his size, his mass, his strength, and his demonstrated viciousness. But wasn’t Wilson as tall as Brown? He was, but Wilson weighed substantially less, and age is a very serious factor in physical confrontations. Despite my relative skills, I would be a fool to engage in a fight with a young criminal. They’re always 18-22, fit, wired and energetic, while I get older every year, with all the disadvantages and vulnerabilities age imposes. Through greater skill and experience, I might be able to overcome a younger opponent, but I would be much more likely to sustain serious damage in the process, and the outcome would always be very much in doubt. Such was the case with Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, and the law was entirely on Wilson’s side–if applied honestly.
In police encounters, the standard is what a reasonable police officer would have done in the same situation. Police officers have training and experience the average citizen does not have, so the standard is somewhat different.
In short, it normally matters not at all whether a criminal was armed. What matters is whether a reasonable police officer, in the same situation, would have believed that they were in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death. Police officers are not just defending their own life, they are holding the line between civilization and anarchy for us all.
Obviously, there are some possible circumstances where armed/unarmed status might have some bearing on a shoot/don’t shoot decision. Among them are people who are found pointing a BB gun or Airsoft gun replica of a real gun at police officers. They are, in fact, unarmed, but what police officer, suddenly looking at what appears to be a very real gun pointed at them–it’s designed to look like one–would be able to tell, within a fraction of a second, that they were not facing an imminent deadly threat?
For the media, “unarmed” tells the whole story. They think it’s all readers need know. Thank goodness reality is different, for average citizens, and for the police.