Police Misconduct

Police Misconduct

Don’t Shoot: The Problem of Police Deadly Force

Executive Summary


From increased arming of police officers in urban communities beginning with the War on Drugs, to the sudden advent of SWAT teams in everyday policing, the past 50 years have seen an unprecedented militarization of police in the United States. Police misconduct, particularly the excessive use of deadly force by police officers, has also steadily increased. Recent publicity of police use of deadly force has caused America to stop and ask: why are unarmed civilians dying at the hands of our protective force? Even more alarming, a disproportionately high number of police shooting victims are young black men—with young black men 21 times more likely to be shot than young white men.

Complex factors, including contextual pressures and psychological forces, influence the dynamics surrounding this issue. At the individual level, implicit racial biases linking black males with crime may help explain why black males disproportionately make up the victims of police deadly force. Furthermore, the organizational culture of police forces has been shown to influence police to be more likely to use deadly force against suspects encountered in crime-ridden and disadvantaged neighborhoods. When viewed in the larger context of skewed media portrayals and the competing interests of governmental agencies, corporate entities, and the public, it is clear that a set of policy solutions must take into account more than the individual dispositions of actors within the system.

Current policy lacks sufficient remedies for the families of victims—a shift towards stricter liability may serve to emotionally compensate victim’s families, and also to deter the underlying behavior surrounding the use of police deadly force. The existing objective reasonableness test allows for a great deal of leniency when judging police use of excessive force. Under this test, police officers are even incentivized to use a level of force greater than necessary. Such force provides more assurance for the officer’s personal safety coupled with a low likelihood of bearing any costs. When applying the objective reasonableness test, most jurisdictions generally limit or do not impose liability at all on police officers for escalating situations to the point of deadly force. Due to the doctrine of qualified immunity, even a successful showing of excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee that a plaintiff will be entitled to monetary damages—or, for that matter, even a trial.

In order to curb the excessive use of deadly force by police, the parties responsible for the current levels of deadly force should be made to bear its costs. For example, expanding direct municipal liability may help curb excessive use of deadly force by incentivizing municipalities to implement proper procedures to reduce these preventable acts of violence. Ex post and ex ante solutions that expand municipal liability would serve to give legal recourse to those who suffer from police misconduct, but also to compel police municipalities to refocus their attention on the excessive application of deadly force and incentivize them to make appreciable changes.

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