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Many States Out of Step with the Constitution on the Use of Force by Police

Recently, President Obama held a town hall meeting to address the growing tension between minority communities and police forces after the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the police officers in Dallas.  He urged police officers to forge trust with communities and recommended better training and more resources.

Many groups around the country have been asking for better training programs, mandatory body cameras, and other reforms.  These may indeed help to reduce shootings of civilians, but a deeper concern has to do with the laws surrounding the use of deadly force by law enforcement.  What legal standards exist that police officers can use to defend their actions after the fact?

Last year, Amnesty International conducted an investigation into the legal standards for the use of deadly force by police officers in the United States, comparing them with current Supreme Court rulings and international human rights standards, and found enormous disparities.

* It turns out that nine states and the city of Washington, DC have absolutely no legal standards about when officers may use deadly force in arresting suspects.

* There are no states in the country that comply with international law enforcement standards.  The current United Nations standard is that police officers should only use deadly force when it is a last resort, and then, only to prevent grave harm or imminent death to themselves or another person.

* What is even more astounding is that there are 13 states that that do not even comply with current constitutional standards set by the US Supreme Court.  In the 1985 case of Tennessee v. Garner, the Court ruled that police officers may only use deadly force if they have probable cause that the suspect poses significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officers or others.

My home state of Oregon is one of these places out of step with the Constitution, along with the very populated states of New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California.  In Oregon, for instance, police officers are allowed to shoot to kill if the police officers have a reasonable belief that a fleeing suspect has committed a kidnapping, arson, burglary, or indeed, any felony at all, even if the suspect is not posing an immediate threat of death of physical harm.  Oregon law does not require that a suspect be given a warning of the use of deadly force, even though such a warning is an international legal standard.  Up to 20 states allow police officers to kill a suspect simply for trying to escape prison or jail.

Given this legal framework, incidents of police shootings will not be reduced by body cameras or better training alone since it is the law itself that licenses wide discretion on whom and when police can kill.

This year, at least one state, Missouri, has started working to change that. After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the protests that followed, legislators looked at the use of force provisions (which allowed officers to kill suspects who they believed had committed a felony) and found that it was out of step with the Garner standard.

Everyone who is concerned about the tension in the country and the grievances of the Black Lives Matter movement should press their state lawmakers to ensure that law enforcement officials in their states are at least upholding the US Constitution.

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José-Antonio Orosco, Ph.D, writes for PeaceVoice and is Associate Professor of Philosophy:  School of History, Philosophy, and Religion Director, Oregon State University Peace Studies Program.

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