Police-Generated Killings: The Gap between Ethics and Law

Political Research Quarterly 75 (2):366-378 (2022)
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This article offers a normative analysis of some of the most controversial incidents involving police—what I call police-generated killings. In these cases, bad police tactics create a situation where deadly force becomes necessary, becomes perceived as necessary, or occurs unintentionally. Police deserve blame for such killings because they choose tactics that unnecessarily raise the risk of deadly force, thus violating their obligation to prioritize the protection of life. Since current law in the United States fails to ban many bad tactics, police- generated killings often are treated as “lawful but awful.” To address these killings, some call on changes to departmental policies or voluntary reparations by local governments, yet such measures leave in place a troubling gap between ethics and law. I argue that police-generated killings merit legal sanctions by appealing to a relevant analogy: self-generated self-defense, where the person who engages in self-defense started the trouble. The persistent lack of accountability for police-generated killings threatens life, police legitimacy, and trust in democratic institutions. The article closes by identifying tools in law and policy to address this challenge.

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Ben Jones
Pennsylvania State University


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