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A federal civil rights investigation into the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died after a violent arrest by Memphis, Tenn., officers on Jan. 7, is prompting renewed attention to the use of excessive force against people, many of whom are young and Black.
Since George Floyd's death in May 2020, many cities and towns have passed measures to change how officers operate, including laws requiring de-escalation, limiting the use of force and banning chokeholds. In Washington, the Justice in Policing Act passed in the House but languished in the Senate. It would have established a national use-of-force standard for police and overhauled qualified immunity protections for officers.
Taken together, they still add up to the most far-reaching demand to transform policing in the nation's history. But the Supreme Court signaled in two rulings in October 2021 that it continued to support qualified immunity.
Here's what we know about when officers can use deadly force.
When does the law allow for deadly force?
In 1989, the Supreme Court created a precedent that still dominates the legal approach to this question, finding in Graham v. Connor that when using force, police need only meet the standard of what a reasonable officer might do.
"The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion.
Although this "split-second" standard allows judges and juries to question an officer's decisions, they are instructed not to use the benefit of hindsight. "The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene," the ruling says.
Generally, officers are authorized to use lethal force only if they reasonably believe that a person poses a danger to police or the public. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that it was not legal for officers to shoot fleeing suspects in the back solely to keep them from evading arrest, and later rulings asserted that a suspect's being armed does not, on its own, give an officer the right to shoot.
So what does 'reasonable' actually mean?
It can be broken down into two core components, said Sharon Fairley, a former federal prosecutor who led the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in Chicago.
"The first question is: Was it necessary to use force at all?" she said. "And then the second question: Was the force that was used in proportion to the threat?"
The case of Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who was convicted on two counts of murder as well as manslaughter for kneeling on Floyd, who died in the encounter, offers an example.
"According to some of the witnesses who took the stand, the act of putting him on the ground was probably seen as reasonable under the circumstances," said Fairley, who teaches at the University of Chicago Law School. "But when he represented no continuing threat to the officer, that's when it became unreasonable."
Most police departments' use-of-force policies have explanations for how reasonableness is assessed and give examples of the factors to be considered, she said. They usually explain the circumstances when force is allowed — for example, in response to a threat to an officer or active resistance. They also specify what actions officers are not permitted to take, like using chokeholds or shooting into moving vehicles.
Officers are taught legal concepts and the specific components of the department's policy, and most departments also include some kind of scenario-based training with live demonstrations or videos.
"Courts and juries may consider whether an officer's conduct was consistent or inconsistent with his or her training," Fairley said.
How has footage from body cameras and cellphones changed policing?
A sea change occurred in the fall of 2014, when a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting that summer of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man. There was no footage of the shooting, and Brown's family called for every police officer in the country to wear a body camera.
The Obama administration then committed to funding body camera programs across the United States. Only a few dozen police departments were using cameras at that time; today the figure is around 10,000. Some research shows a statistically significant reduction in use of force after body cameras are put into use. The cameras also appear to reduce the number of complaints from civilians, who know that their, actions, too, are being recorded.
As of 2021, at least 34 states and the District of Columbia had passed laws related to the public disclosure of body-worn camera footage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Chicago, dashcam video captured Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, 16 times in October 2014. That video was played repeatedly for jurors, and Van Dyke became the first Chicago patrol officer to be convicted of murder in almost 50 years.
Is use of force standardized across all police forces?
No, there are no national standards. There are about 18,000 police departments in the country, 80% of which have 50 officers or fewer, and each follows its own policy.
Are officers ever charged? And are they convicted?
Charges against officers are typically rare, but prosecutors have charged officers in several cities who were seen on camera using deadly force.
The officer who fatally shot Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man driving with his girlfriend and daughter in a suburb of Minnesota in 2016, was acquitted of manslaughter. The officer, who shot Castile five times at close range, killing him in the seat of his parked car, said he fired his weapon out of fear that Castile might have been reaching for a gun, a fear that was mistaken.
In Minneapolis, Chauvin could not defend his actions by saying that Floyd's suffocation resulted from a split-second decision because video images and witness accounts showed that he continued to kneel on Floyd for more than nine minutes.
Does racial bias play a role?
The many critics of the split-second standard cite a litany of police shootings of Black people. They argue that implicit racial bias leads officers to fear potential danger from Black people more than white people in similar situations and that it drives them to use deadly force disproportionately against Black people. Because the standard hinges on the police officer's perception of danger, critics say, it leads to racial disparities.
What are some proposed changes?
More than 30 states have passed new police oversight and reform laws — over 140 in all — according to a New York Times analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of the laws — restricting the use of force, overhauling disciplinary systems, creating civilian review boards and requiring transparency around misconduct cases — give states far more influence over policing practices that have typically been left to local governments. A few states, including California, have even changed the legal standard for when officers can use deadly force from being "reasonable" to "necessary."
Many of the country's 18,000 police departments have instituted policies banning or restricting the use of a chokehold.
An effort to pass sweeping federal legislation on police oversight issues was passed by the House last year but not by the Senate.
What do police think of this?
The push for reform has begun to pare back the protections won for police over the past half-century, and some police advocates argue that the new rules could violate officers' rights to defend themselves.
Police unions say that the split-second decision standard is essential to keeping officers and the public safe.
In April 2021, Ma'Khia Bryant, 16, who according to a body-camera video was wielding a knife and had threatened two girls, was fatally shot by an officer in Columbus, Ohio.
"If the officer doesn't act, there's a strong probability that an individual will be killed," Larry James, general counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police, said of the shooting.
"The officer is duty-bound to take that action to protect the life of another citizen or him or herself. That is the standard that police should be judged by, not Monday morning quarterbacking," he added.
Police unions argue that the number of killings by police in the U.S. reflects a higher level of civilian violence fed by greater gun ownership. American police officers must resort to violence more, they say, partly because they encounter it more.
In other wealthy, developed nations, there is nothing comparable with the nearly 1,000 people who have been shot and killed by police annually in recent years in the U.S., according to data from the Washington Post, which also shows that officers fatally shot Black and Hispanic people at a much higher rate than they did whites.