Law enforcement officers are tasked with the ever-so-important job of keeping the public safe from crime. However, a cop's job isn't easy, and can quickly escalate into situations where an officer's life is in real, immediate danger. But when a cop has been overtaken by a suspect, is the public allowed to return the favor and defend a cop? Can a private individual intervene with lethal force, such as by shooting a cop's attacker?
The answer to this question really is situational. Apart from the potential of pulling a Frank Drebin, the same standards that apply when defending a private individual are likely to apply. Depending on state law, stand your ground laws may or may not apply, or there may be a heightened standard for when deadly force is legally permissible in the defense of others.
In the Media
A recent news story about a private individual shooting and killing a man attacking an officer in Florida provides a clear example, though one that may not be applicable in every state. It is also worth noting that, even in Florida, only after reviewing the matter did the district attorney decide not to press charges against the private citizen.
Here's a summary of the recent incident: After a brief high speed chase, the suspect pulled over, got out, and allegedly pulled the officer out of his vehicle and began attacking him. The officer was pinned on the ground by a suspect, who was sitting on top of the officer, and allegedly banging his head against the ground. An armed private citizen with a permitted concealed weapon witnessed the alleged attack and came to the officer's aid. According to one report, the officer was screaming for the citizen to shoot his attacker, and allegedly the attacker was reaching for the officer's gun when the citizen opened fire.
Criminal Charges and Civil Liability
Generally, when a person steps in to defend another, they are assuming liability for their actions. Even if the person being defended is a cop, a defender will not always be able to walk away without any liability. Typically, their use of force must be proportional to the threat. Additionally, the defender must have a reasonable basis for their perception of the threat.
While the above example shows a shooter that clearly had a reasonable basis, if an officer is just arguing with another, or isn't clearly in need of assistance, a reasonable basis may not be so clear. Stepping in, particularly if you have a gun, could result in your own injury, as well as potential criminal charges or civil liability. Additionally, in some jurisdictions, these actions might be considered an imperfect self-defense, which could lessen charges, but not provide a full defense to liability.