Since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a law enforcement officer in Ferguson, MO in the summer of 2014, the right of police officers to use deadly force is an issue that has been pushed into the spotlight. Though Brown was not armed with a weapon, the officer in that case was not prosecuted for his actions, which caused many people to wonder just when is it appropriate for officers to use deadly force by firing their weapons.

Statistics regarding police shootings in 2015

The number of individuals shot and killed by police so far in 2015, as tracked and reported by the Washington Post, seems shocking. Though some high-profile police shootings make headlines and incite protests, there are many others that occur with little to no media coverage. The following is the breakdown of fatal shootings across the United States so far this year:

Total: 789
Armed with a deadly weapon: 624
In a vehicle: 42
Had a toy weapon: 26
Unarmed: 74
Unknown: 3

The above statistics do not include the possibly thousands more who survived police shootings. The following are the statistics specifically for fatal police shooting in the state of Pennsylvania in 2015:

Total: 14
Armed with a deadly weapon: 9
In a vehicle: 0
Had a toy weapon: 3
Unarmed: 2
Unknown: 0

It is important to note that over 35 percent of people shot and killed by law enforcement officers in Pennsylvania were not armed with a deadly weapon. This begs the questions: Why were these individuals killed and were the shooting lawful?

The history of deadly force laws

Prior to the mid-1980’s, law enforcement officers had the ability to lawfully shoot any suspect of a felony crime who was running away. The mere suspicion that you were a felon was enough to warrant the police shooting and possibly ending your life under laws referred to as the “fleeing felon doctrine.” However, in 1985, a case came before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) involving a 15-year-old who died when police shot him. He was climbing a fence after reportedly taking $10 from a home. In Tennessee v. Garner, the Court ruled that law enforcement may not automatically use deadly force simply to keep a felony suspect from escaping and to do so would be a violation of the suspect’s 4th Amendment rights. Instead, one of the following circumstances must exist to justify using deadly force:

  • The officer believed that the suspect posed an immediate substantial threat of serious bodily harm or death to the officer; or
  • The officer believed that the suspect posed an immediate substantial threat to others in the community.

The Court specifically instructed that, “where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so” and that “a police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead.”

How Tennessee v. Garner is applied today

Though law enforcement officers are expected to use deadly force only as a final resort to prevent serious harm to themselves or others, the statistics above and the Michael Brown case indicate that unarmed individuals continue to be shot and killed by police. Moreover, in cases like Brown’s, officers who state that they believed there was the threat of harm do not face charges.

In another case this year, however, a South Carolina police officer shot and killed Walter Scott, who ran away from a traffic stop regarding a brake light. After video surfaced that Scott did not have the officer’s Taser and that the officer did not seem to be in danger, officer Michael Slager has been charged with murder. As you can see, there is often a lack of consistency in the way police shootings are handled and are evaluated—sometimes questionably—on a case-by-case basis.

Find out how a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney can assist you

Law enforcement officers do not always follow the laws regarding force, deadly force, and your rights under the 4th Amendment and 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is important to have a highly qualified Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer on your side who understands how to defend your rights and hold police accountable for wrongful actions. At The Zeiger Firm, we are dedicated to standing up for individuals who have been arrested and/or charged with a crime and we provide zealous representation in criminal court no matter what your situation may be. Please do not hesitate to call our office at 215-546-0340 to discuss your case today.


Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.