Shot in the Back: Police Use of Force from Behind

Recently, there have been several reports of police using firearms and shooting suspects from behind. This may seem a bad thing, but it is not always so. There are several reasons why such a use of force might be not only acceptable, but well within the basics of approved deadly force options.

What is Deadly Force?

Deadly force is the use of any force likely to result in death. In most cases, this is by use of a firearm (gun), however, can be by other means as well.

Non deadly force is a use of force that is not likely to result in death, such as pepper spray, batons, physical force, chemical agents like tear gas, and less lethal projectiles.

The first thing to understand about the use of a firearm is what constitutes a firearm (gun), and what might look like a gun, but is not.

A gun is a weapon that is used to fire a lethal projectile, such as a lead, steel, or copper bullet. These come in different types, sizes and calibers. A launcher is a weapon used to fire less lethal projectiles, such as wood blocks, bean bags, rubber bullets and sponge rounds. These types of projectiles may possibly cause death, but are unlikely to do so.

A launcher is used to fire less lethal projectiles. Sometimes, a firearm can be used to fire less-lethal projectiles such as a shotgun used to fire bean bag rounds. Usually, this kind of shotgun is marked to identify it as a launcher. Often the shotgun will be painted green, safety orange, or some other color to make it easily recognizable as a launcher platform. In this article will deal with the use of a gun fired at a suspect from behind. I will write about launchers at a later time.

The knee jerk reaction of most members of the news media and persons in the general public is that it is always bad to “shoot someone in the back”. A similar term, “stabbed in the back” connotes mean spirited gossip spoken out of earshot of the person spoken about. As a society, Americans have an aversion to anything done “behind the back” as dishonorable and wrong. This, however is not the case in law enforcement use of force.

It is not always wrong or bad to shoot a suspect from behind.

Example: A person standing over a victim on the ground, repeatedly stabbing the victim, is shot from behind by an officer acting to stop the victim from being killed. In such a situation, time is of the essence, so the officer has no extra time to move to the front of the assailant.

Example: An officer finds him or herself behind an active shooter at a school and has a clear shot to stop the attack. The officer must act immediately to save the lives of children and school staff.

Example: A convicted felon is attempting to escape the secured perimeter of a high security prison and is facing away from the officer in the armed tower who must use a firearm to stop the escape.

In every instance above, officers were faced with a situation that pitted them against a decision to use deadly force to stop the immediate threat of death or great bodily injury of defenseless victims, or stop escaping felons who are known to pose a violent and extreme risk to the public. In each case, it is understandable that the officer had no time to get in front of the suspect. It is also notable that had the officer not acted immediately, the officer would also be subject to personal, professional, and civil liability for failure to act immediately.

So the next time a news story makes hay of an officer shooting a suspect from behind, try to remember that doing so is not always wrong. It is often best to reserve judgement for the experts and the legal system.