FAQ on Deadly Force

Q: When can police officers use deadly force?

A: Local and state law enforcement agencies create their own deadly force policies. Most follow a Justice Department policy that allows officers to use deadly force when there is “a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or another person.”

Q: How do officers determine if deadly force is necessary?

A: Officers are trained to assess an incident and apply an appropriate level of force. Las Vegas police use a six-level process that starts with an officer’s mere presence at the scene, includes an array of nonlethal options, and ends with the possibility of using deadly force.

Q: Are police allowed to shoot someone who is running away?

A: Most departments, including those in the Las Vegas Valley, allow deadly force to prevent the escape of a “fleeing felon” who poses a significant threat to human life after escape.

Q: What about suspects with knives?

A: Officers are advised to shoot only if the person poses an immediate threat. Las Vegas police consider the “21-foot rule,” which is based on research showing an average person can cover that much ground before an officer can react, draw a gun and fire. Sometimes officers cite the fact that a person is within that distance in justifying their decision to shoot.

Q: What are police officers trained to do after shooting somebody?

A: Handcuff the subject regardless of injuries to prevent the person from assaulting them or anyone else.

Q: What happens to officers who shoot at somebody?

A: In Southern Nevada, officers are placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation. Officers involved in fatal shootings until recently remained on leave until after a coroner’s inquest. With that process now in limbo, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie returns officers “to work” after the internal review. If an officer’s use of deadly force is deemed criminal, the Clark County district attorney or state attorney general can file charges.

Q: Has a local police officer been successfully prosecuted or fired for shooting someone while on duty?

A: No. The state indicted but could not convict a Las Vegas vice officer who used a deadly chokehold on a suspect in 1990. No officer has been fired because of an on-duty shooting in 20 years.

Q: What legal options are available to people shot by police and families of those who die?

A: They can sue in state or federal court. Most go to federal court.

Q: Do local police have a shoot-to-kill policy?

A: No. Officers are trained to aim at  “center mass” — the chest — to incapacitate.

Q: Why don’t they shoot weapons out of suspects’ hands instead?

A: The chances of hitting a weapon, a hand or a leg are relatively low, particularly if the target is moving.

Q: Is it ever permissible for police to shoot an unarmed person?

A: Yes. In several cases, officers have fired at an unarmed person whose movement suggested the person was in fact armed. In other cases, officers have fired at suspects who tried to grab officers’ weapons.

Q: How often do police in the United States shoot people?

A: No one tracks it on a national basis.