Defensive Killing By Police: Analyzing Uncertain Threat Scenarios

Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 24 (3):315-351 (2023)
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In the United States, police use of force experts often maintain that controversial police shootings where an unarmed person’s hand gesture was interpreted as their “going for a gun” are justifiable. If an officer waits to confirm that a weapon is indeed being pulled from a jacket pocket or waistband, it may be too late to defend against a lethal attack. This article examines police policy norms for self-defense against “uncertain threats” in three contexts: (1) known in-progress violent crimes, (2) interactions with civilians behaving non-aggressively, and (3) interactions with civilians behaving aggressively. It is argued that the context of a known in-progress violent crime gives rise to threat probability-, fairness-, and lesser evil-based reasons for a norm permitting police officers to use lethal force. However, in the contexts of civilians behaving non-aggressively and civilians behaving aggressively, such a norm is not justifiable. In the former case, I introduce two conditions, the Justification condition and the Valuing Civilian Lives condition, which I argue are not presently met. In the latter case, these two conditions again are not met; aggression may moreover be excused or justified due to background injustices around race and the criminal justice system.

Author's Profile

Jennifer Page
University of Zürich


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