CPA student Chris Gardner faces a domestic disturbance training scenario as Chief Shane Woody and Officer Tim Blankenship observe.

By Anne Eickstadt


Sgt. Chris Washburn returned to the Citizens Police Academy to discuss the Use of Force. He told us about the legal definitions and use of deadly force and the laws regarding both for civilians and for police officers.

Deadly force, also known as lethal force, is force that is likely to cause either serious bodily injury or death to another person. In most jurisdictions, the use of deadly force is justified only under conditions of extreme necessity as a last resort, when all lesser means have failed or cannot reasonably be employed.

Firearms, bladed weapons, explosives and vehicles are among those weapons the use of which is considered deadly force. The use of non-traditional weapons in an offensive manner, such as a baseball bat, sharp pencil, tire iron or other, may also be considered deadly force.

Civilians have the right to self-defense, of self and of others against imminent threat or harm from a forcible felony. Forcible felonies include treason, murder and the predatory sexual assault of a child, rape, robbery, arson, aggravated arson, kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping or aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm.

The civilian use of force is justified if you reasonably believe such conduct is necessary to defend him/her self or another against the imminent use of unlawful force. For those with a concealed carry license, the gun can be legally used if someone is likely to cause great bodily harm or death, or someone is in the commission of a forcible felony.

The use of force can be used to protect your own dwelling if the intruder is violent, riotous, tumultuous, or you reasonably believe the intruder will commit a felony or to prevent violence. You must have something that leads you to believe that the other person has the intent to do great harm or to prevent the commission of a felony.

Warn them in advance: “‘If you don’t get out, I will shoot you.’ Nobody has to be a victim,” said Washburn.

In the United States, the use of deadly force by sworn law enforcement officers is lawful when the officer reasonably believes the subject poses a significant threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or others. The use of deadly force by law enforcement is also lawful when used to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon when the officer believes escape would pose a significant threat of serious bodily injury or death to members of the public.

Common law allowed officers to use any force necessary to effect a felony arrest but this was narrowed in the Tennessee v. Garner ruling in 1985 when the U.S. Supreme Court said that “deadly force … may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others.”

In the 1989 Graham v. Connor ruling, the Supreme Court expanded its definition to include “objective reasonableness” standard—not subjective as to what the officer’s intent might have been—and it must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene—and its calculations must embody the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.

“An officer’s actions are always subject to the departmental review of a superior officer, the review of the prosecutor’s office, a possible civil rights violation/ investigation, and, potentially, for a civil lawsuit brought be a non-governmental plaintiff.

“The three things used to determine the reasonableness of an officer’s use of force are:

1.) The severity of the crime at issue; i.e. jaywalking, stealing a container of orange juice, or something worse.

2.) Does the suspect pose an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others.

3.) Is the suspect actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight?

“The use of force has to be viewed in the light of a reasonable police officer at the moment of decision. Hindsight makes no difference.”

Following the instructions of when lethal force can and cannot be used, the students had the option of participating in the same Use of Force scenarios that the officers use for training. They had a choice of pepper spray, a Taser or a handgun to use in each situation. As no one had an equipment belt/vest, these items were placed on a chair nearby so they could quickly grab the one they wanted. The main objective in each case is to “stop the threat.”

The scenarios can range from home invasions, a suicidal individual, an armed disturbance in a bank, retail theft and any other situation where an officer must make split-second decisions on minimal information.

First up, student Chris Gardner learned that the police department had been called with a complaint of a domestic disturbance. She enters the open door of the apartment to find a man and a woman sitting on a couch. The woman is displaying signs of distress and a chair has been knocked over. The man is yelling at her and Gardner is trying to talk over the top of him to de-escalate the situation.

The tall man stands aggressively ordering the officer to get out. (Gardner picks the handgun in case of need.) He picks up a knife that has been sitting on the side table, and threatens her, then places it back on the table. She continues to hold the handgun.

Why did she choose the handgun and why did she keep holding it? The woman was in distress and the room showed signs of disturbance. The man was bigger and stronger then Gardner and he had a weapon that he could still grab and use. Gardner felt that the woman needed to be protected and did not know if those two were the only people in the apartment—someone had to have made that call to the police.

Having defended her decisions and actions, Gardner let another student take a turn. Tom Porter faced a home invasion situation. As he approached the door, three women run out of the house yelling, “He has a gun!” “Officer” Porter draws his handgun and enters the house to find a man pointing a gun at someone still in the house. The man disregards Porter’s instructions to, “Drop the gun!” and shoots at Porter, who shoots back.

Porter defended his decisions and another student tried the same scenario—with a small change. This time the man with the gun in the house was shot by the student before he could turn and shoot the “officer.”

The small change in this scenario was that the man inside was the homeowner who had disarmed the intruder and was holding him at gunpoint until the police arrived. The student did not identify himself as a police officer and, based on the previous scenario, shot the wrong person.

Washburn debriefed the student and described everything that an officer has to notice and has to do in every situation because even the slightest error in judgment can cause the death of an innocent person.

He discussed the line-of-sight of an officer and said that if you can see the suspect that the suspect can see you. He spoke of lines of fire and the possible results of over-shooting or missing the suspect altogether and who/what the bullet might hit. He demonstrated making oneself as small a target as possible if the suspect is shooting at you.

Other scenarios for the class included a retail theft in which the suspect was struggling with the officer’s partner and reaching for the officer’s gun and then a child visitation exchange in a parking lot with an aggressive father and an armed mother who ends up shooting the father and then the officer.

He said that in each scenario, there was the possibility of deescalating the situation without force, which is something officers strive to do.

In the course of two hours, Washburn was able to condense for the class an idea of why an officer needs to use force when a situation cannot be deescalated. He then answered every question the class still had and gave them a lot to think about regarding the violence that officers need to always be prepared to face in the course of their duties to keep the community safe.

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