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Good Question: How Do They Determine If Deadly Force Was Justified?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Nine days after their son was killed by a Ferguson police officer, Michael Brown’s family now says they are convinced the officer who shot him should be punished.

“His mother wanted to ask a question,” Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Brown family, said during a press conference Monday announcing the results of an independent autopsy.  “What else do we need to give them to arrest the killer of my child?”

University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen says the answer comes down what the officer “reasonably” believed what was happening just before the shooting.

“We think about what would a reasonable officer have done given the facts and circumstances,” Shen said.

Each state has its own laws when it comes to deadly use of force by a police officer, but the states follow general guidelines set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Minnesota, deadly force by an officer is justified when police officers use it:

1) to protect the peace officer or someone else from apparent death or great bodily harm

2) to arrest, capture, or prevent the escape of a person whom the officer reasonably believes committed or attempted to commit a felony using or threatening deadly force

3) to arrest, capture, or prevent the escape of a person whom the officer reasonably believes committed or attempted to commit a felony and will kill or seriously injure someone if not captured.

What is considered reasonable, though, is up for debate.

“No one has an answer to it,” Shen said. “Supreme Court has never tried to give an actual answer to that question. We do the best to think about what would a reasonable police officer do in that situation. There’s no better answer than that.”

He says investigators say there are some facts to consider like the severity of the crime or what the defendant was doing at the time.

“Was he or she just sitting down peacefully or were they running away? Were they coming at the officer?” he said.

The courts have ruled that the actual threat doesn’t matter as much the officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief of the threat.

For example, a toy gun or something that looks like a gun might be considered a reasonable threat.

The courts have also ruled officers should be allowed a different standard when it comes to reasonableness.

“We recognize police officers have a really difficult job. They do things that none of us could ever imagine doing and they do it every day,” Shen said. “That says we recognize that and we’re going to give you a different standard for acting.”

In the Ferguson case, there are three separate investigations: the internal police department’s, the local county’s criminal and the federal civil rights.

It will likely take months before any results are publicly released. Some have argued the local police are the most capable of conducting the local investigation, while others have questioned the fairness of investigating your own.

The FBI does collect some data on how many officers have been punished for the use of deadly force, but the numbers are so incomplete, the database isn’t thought to be accurate.

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