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When Are Police Allowed to Open Fire?

When are police officers allowed to fire their weapons?

In America, we allow our law enforcement officers to carry and use firearms in order to protect public safety. But there are limits to when police are allowed to use deadly force -- the kind that comes from the barrel of a gun.

So in which types of situations are cops legally allowed to open fire?

State and Local Rules on Firearm Use

Thanks to the principles of federalism, the federal government does not regulate many of the ways in which guns are used in each state and county in the nation.

This means that each state or municipality can set its own policy with regard to how and when police officers can legitimately use firearms. These policies typically allow officers to open fire when:

  • The officer or another person is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm, or
  • A suspect who committed a dangerous felony is fleeing and presents imminent danger or harm if he or she escapes.

Some states may explicitly restrict officers from firing a weapon to scare or warn suspects (i.e., fire a "warning shot") or using force on a suspect who is only a danger to him or herself. However, suicidal suspects may legally be brought down by police gunfire if they pose a threat to officers.

Local rules may also authorize police -- like the LAPD -- to shoot "potentially dangerous" animals who pose a risk to officers.

Legal Limits on Deadly Force

The U.S. Supreme Court has verified that officers may open fire, knowing that shooting is likely to cause death or serious injury, when a suspect is:

  • Suspected of a "severe" crime,
  • Posing an immediate threat to officers, and
  • Actively resisting arrest.

However, police often exceed this authority when trying to apprehend a suspect, endangering children and innocent bystanders. Officers who open fire on innocent civilians can be sued for the injuries, deaths, and property damage they might cause -- although their government employer is likely to foot the bill.

Officers who open fire and kill suspects or unintended targets can also face criminal homicide charges and at the very least disciplinary review by their respective law enforcement agencies.

If you are concerned that officers exceeded their authority in opening fire on you or someone you know, contact a knowledgeable civil rights attorney in your area to discuss your options.

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