Police-Generated Killings: The Gap between Ethics and Law

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(2) 366 –378
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211009596
Police kill over a thousand individuals each year in the
United States (Fagan and Campbell 2020). Because video
evidence and key details are missing for many of these
killings, it is impossible to know exactly how many are
justified. But some clearly are not. Consider the 2015
shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina. Video shows
Officer Michael Slager shooting a plainly unarmed Scott
in the back as he fled a traffic stop (New York Times
2015). Slager’s actions provoke a combination of moral
disgust, anger, and horror—and rightly so. At the time he
was shot, Scott presented no threat to anyone’s life. There
was no need to use deadly force to protect life, yet the
officer shot anyway. In this case, the law backs up our
ethical intuitions. U.S. law prohibits police from shooting
nondangerous suspects who flee (Tennessee v. Garner
The law, though, does not always match our intuitions
regarding killings by police. That is especially true for
some of the most controversial incidents, what I call
police-generated killings. In these cases, bad police tac-
tics create a situation where deadly force becomes nec-
essary, becomes perceived as necessary, or occurs
unintentionally. Since current law in the United States
fails to ban many bad tactics, police-generated killings
often are treated as “lawful but awful” (Cournoyer 2016).
Several high-profile incidents fall into this category, like
the 2014 shooting in Cleveland, Ohio, of Tamir Rice—a
twelve-year-old Black child. An officer shot Rice after
perceiving him make a threatening movement with a gun
that turned out to be fake. The shooting occurred after the
officer confronted Rice at close range with his firearm
drawn. This abrupt escalation of force appears unneces-
sary, since Rice presented no immediate threat (Park and
Lindsay 2015). In fact, many use-of-force experts criti-
cized police tactics in this case and blamed them for con-
tributing to a likely avoidable death (Kindy 2016;
Pickering and Klinger 2016, 28).
Defenders of police responsible for such incidents
argue that deadly force was and should be lawful because,
at the moment of its use, officers had a reasonable belief
in its necessity to stop a threat to life (Holloway 2015). In
the United States, some legal precedents support this
view, which is why officers like the one who shot Rice
often avoid legal sanctions (Williams and Smith 2015).
Yet, as protests in recent years make clear, many find that
lack of accountability deeply troubling.
PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211009596Political Research QuarterlyJones
1The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ben Jones, Rock Ethics Institute, The Pennsylvania State University,
131 Sparks Building, University Park, PA 16802, USA.
Email: bentaylorjones@gmail.com
Police-Generated Killings: The Gap
between Ethics and Law
Ben Jones1
This article offers a normative analysis of some of the most controversial incidents involving police—what I call police-
generated killings. In these cases, bad police tactics create a situation where deadly force becomes necessary, becomes
perceived as necessary, or occurs unintentionally. Police deserve blame for such killings because they choose tactics
that unnecessarily raise the risk of deadly force, thus violating their obligation to prioritize the protection of life. Since
current law in the United States fails to ban many bad tactics, police-generated killings often are treated as “lawful
but awful.” To address these killings, some call on changes to departmental policies or voluntary reparations by local
governments, yet such measures leave in place a troubling gap between ethics and law. I argue that police-generated
killings merit legal sanctions by appealing to a relevant analogy: self-generated self-defense, where the person who
engages in self-defense started the trouble. The persistent lack of accountability for police-generated killings threatens
life, police legitimacy, and trust in democratic institutions. The article closes by identifying tools in law and policy to
address this challenge.
criminal law, deadly force, killing, law enforcement, police, self-defense

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT