Using Deadly Force on Non-dangerous Fleeing Suspects

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Law enforcers usually find it necessary to use force when arrestingnon-cooperative suspects. However, the extent to which they shouldapply force is rather controversial. Fleeing suspects are likely tobe victims of unnecessary force, especially when the police suspectthem of being armed. The law, however, is clear on how the policeshould handle criminal on the run by paying attention to their safetyand that of the public. Under the common law, police officers coulduse deadly force on criminals who resist arrest and ran to evade thepolice (Blume III, 1984). While the atrocities committed by criminalsdeserve them to be arrested and put behind bars, there is a questionon the level of force that the police should use, should the criminaldecide to engage the police in a run. In such a situation, is itnecessary to use deadly force? This paper will explore this issue bydrawing points from Tennessee v Garner case that was ruled in thesupreme court of the United States.

On October 3rd, 1974 at 10.45pm, police officers from Memphisresponded to a burglary call in the area. The two officers, LeslieWright, and Hymon Elton, collaborated to answer the call and find outwhat was going on in the house. Hymon went behind the house andnoticed a young man on the run across the yard. However, the suspectran into a six-foot-high barrier, and the officer got a chance to usehis flashlight on him (Tennessee v. Garner). Hymon was sure that thesuspect did not carry any weapon. After being ordered to stop, thesuspect, Garner, started climbing over the wall. Hymon was sure thathe could lose the suspect if he found his way to the other side ofthe fence. He, therefore, removed his gun and shot the suspect. Thebullet hit Garner at the back of his head, and doctors pronounced himdead moments after an ambulance took him to the hospital (Tennesseev. Garner). Garner, a 15-year-old had stolen a purse and a purse fromthe house.

Hymon acted in compliance with the Tennessee state statute and thepolicy of the Police Department of Memphis that allowed officers touse deadly force on fleeing suspects. According to the statute, anysuspect who flees with an intention of avoiding arrest and havingbeing noticed to stop and comply may be subject to the use of all thenecessary force (Blume, 1984). The court ruled that the applicationof deadly force to apprehend suspect results to seizure and under thefourth amendment, it should be reasonable and objective to standard.A police officer may not, therefore, seize and unarmed andnon-dangerous fleeing criminals by the use of fatal force.

First, while it is acceptable that fleeing suspects may pose a threatto members of the public, it does not guarantee the police to useexcessive force to arrest them. Most of the times, the application ofsuch force becomes fatal. In restraining suspects from fleeing, it isagreeable that officer can do without killing a suspect. In Garner vTennessee, the boy did not pose a significant threat to the policeofficers or other members of the public since he was not armed(Tennenbaum, 1994). The intrusiveness of a seizure through theapplication of deadly force is totally unmatched. When fleeing, theprimary interest of the suspect is to save his life. Taking it awayin the name of acting in compliance with the common law and theprovisions of the Memphis police department compromises this interestand that of the judiciary to make culprits guilty and sufferpunishment. However, some argue that the application of deadly forcelike in the case of Garner v Tennessee would make suspects heed tothe call to halt y police officers after knowing that they might beshot (Tennenbaum, 1994). However, the standard of the application asmentioned in the Fourth Amendment should apply. Although the policemay use force to stop a fleeing suspect, a quick assessment of thedanger that the suspect poses to the officers and members of thepublic should guide their intentions. For example, it was notnecessary to fatally shoot a 15-year-old boy that was not armed.

According to Tennenbaum (1994), the establishment of the criminaljustice is meant to settle cases of aggression like the one committedby Garner. The law is clear on the punishment appropriate forbuglers. The use of deadly force of fleeing criminals disparages theimportance of the judicial system in the American society. It is aself-defeating mechanism that terminates the need for the fallenindividuals to face the law. If Garner was arrested and charged incourt, the judicial system through its efficiency could havecurtailed the need to have lengthy sues from his family members andeliciting different opinions from the members of the public. Forexample, it is agreed that no individual should forcefully or throughcamouflaged means take the possessions of another individual andthose who commit such crime such crimes should face the law(Tennenbaum, 1994). The members of the public would have been happyto see Garner admit his guilt and bear his punishment than having himdead after being shot by a police officer. Why some people believethat such an action like the one Garner faced may reduce the numberof fleeing criminals, the current evidence does not support thehypothetical idea. The petitioners and appellants in Garner vTennessee case do not sufficiently demonstrate that shootingnon-dangerous fleeing suspects outweighs third interests for theirlives.

Also, the use of deadly force to prevent Garner’s escape and thecircumstances that surrounded his case was unreasonable. Although itwas no better to have him escape and present the law enforcers with ahard time trying to locate and put him in prison, his intention didnot warrant his death (Tennessee v. Garner). Where the suspect doesnot result in an immediate threat to the officers on the ground andother members of the public, the harm emanating from the failure toapprehend him did not justify his killing in any way. Besides, theofficer who fired the shot confirmed that Garner was not armed.Therefore, seizing him by fatally shooting him was not acceptable.The Memphis police department policy allowing its officers to use allthe necessary ore to arrest a suspect who flees is questionable andsubject to being misused by officers on the ground. However, theFourth Amendment is clear on the circumstances that could have led tothe slaying of Garner. According to its provision, officers pursing asuspect who is not ready to face arrest may use lethal force uponrealizing that the suspect is a threat to their safety and that ofother citizens.

The case’s dissent holds that Garner’s shooting was justified bythe fact that Hymon had a probable reason to believe that the suspectwas involved in a nighttime burglary. It is agreeable that burglaryis a serious crime that requires the application of the law to punishthe perpetrator. However, it would be unreasonable for it to mean theautomatic justification of the suspect’s death with fatal force.The Federal Bureaus of Investigation classifies burglary as an actionunder property and not under violent crime. Although the burglar inquestion may present circumstances that would warrant his actions asviolent, the fact the Garner broke into the house unarmed does notclassify him as physically dangerous. The available statisticsindicate that burglary incidents rarely involve the use of physicalviolence. According to Mogin, 1980 between 1973 and 1982, only 3.8%of the burglaries reported involved physical violence. The officer,therefore, did not have to conclude that Garner was physicallydangerous and shoot him fatally.

Finally, one of the primary concentrations of criminology is devisingmethods on how to control criminal behavior and the implications. Itadvises on the best methods of legal procedures that reduce crime(Mogin, 1980). In Garner v Tennessee, the use of force may de thoughto be one of the best methods to persuade criminals to surrender tothe police forcefully. However, evidence proves that it does not havea positive impact on their behavior. According to Blume III (1984),while the application of force should be focused on the interest ofthe public, police officers should not use them to elicit mixedfeelings. It is possible for an officer to perceive a criminal asarmed or dangerous while it might not be the case. The common Law andthe concept of the Memphis police department are likely to be used astools by officers to cut the chase on a suspect by shooting him orapplying any other unnecessary force. These laws should haveallowances for which such officers should not apply the said methods.

In conclusion, it is agreeable that the officer acted consistentlywith the provisions of the Memphis police department and for theinterest of the public. The intention of the paper is not to justifyGarner’s intended flight but to demonstrate that his death was notnecessary. Hymon feared that he could not lay his hands upon Garnerif he made his way over the fence. Since he was running to resistarrest, he fired a shot that killed him on the operation table. Thecourt did not find him guilty of any offense. However, it is worthnoting that there is a need for officers to make a quick decision onthe danger posed by a suspect to them and other citizens beforedeciding the amount of force to use. It will not be questionable ifthey shot to an armed offender. the idea that shooting fleeingcriminals curbs the intentions of criminal to resist attack do notfind any support in the available literature. Also, using deadlyforce compromises the interest of non-dangerous criminals running fortheir lives as well as interfering with the judicial process.Therefore, applying excessive force to stop a fleeing criminalwithout the belief that he/she is armed and dangerous is notnecessary.


Blume III, J. H. (1984). Deadly force in Memphis: Tennessee v.Garner. Cumb. L. Rev., 15, 89.

Mogin, P. (1980).Policeman`s Privilege to Shoot a Fleeing Suspect: ConstitutionalLimits on the Use of Deadly Force, The. Am. Crim. L. Rev., 18,533.

Tennenbaum, A. N.(1994). The influence of the&quot Garner&quot Decision on policeuse of deadly force. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology,241-260.

Tennessee v.Garner, 83-1035 (United States Supreme Court, 1985)