In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Deadly Force

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Deadly Force
  • Deadly Force: Legal and Policy Considerations
  • Police Culture and Deadly Force
  • The Need for Data Collection on Police Deadly Force
  • Deadly Force Research Using Official Data
  • Deadly Force Research Using Agency Data
  • Deadly Force Research Using Open-Source Data and Other Data

Criminology Deadly Force
Philip M. Stinson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0288


Deadly force refers to any use of force by a police officer that could result in the imposition of serious bodily injury or death. It includes homicides by police. Most homicides by police in the United States are found to be legally justified. A sworn law enforcement officer with general powers of arrest is legally justified in using deadly force if the officer has a reasonable apprehension of an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death being imposed against the officer or someone else. The fleeing felon rule has been abrogated and police officers are no longer legally justified in using deadly force to stop a fleeing felon absent other exigencies that would constitute an imminent threat. Deadly force research has long been hampered by the lack of meaningful data on the incidence and prevalence of police use of deadly force. Government counts of fatal officer-involved shootings have grossly underestimated annual counts of deadly force incidents. Recent open-source databases, largely created and curated by media organizations, have found that between 900 and 1,000 persons are shot and killed by on-duty police officers each year in the United States. This bibliography mostly focuses on deadly force in the United States. There has been a renewed interest in deadly force research in the aftermath of numerous officer-involved shooting in recent years, with calls for police accountability, transparency, and legitimacy, particularly as various stakeholders have called attention to racial disparities in terms of who is victimized by police deadly force and claims of police bias manifested through police violence against minority citizens.

General Overviews of Deadly Force

Most of the overviews of police deadly force are out-of-date to the extent that they predate the seminal US Supreme Court decisions in Tennessee v. Garner (cited under Deadly Force: Legal and Policy Considerations) and Graham v. Connor in the 1980s (see, e.g., Geller 1982). Historically, for much of the history of the United States, police officers were permitted great latitude in decisions to use deadly force. Up until the 1985 decision in Tennessee v. Garner, the common law and statutes in many states allowed police officers to use deadly force to stop fleeing felons even if the person fleeing was of no immediate threat to the officer or anyone else. Fyfe 1981 argued that the fleeing felon rule was obsolete and overly broad. Alpert and Fridell 1992 offers an excellent summary of the various forms of use of force policies and firearms training requirements at nonfederal law enforcement agencies across the United States, whereas Fyfe 1988 suggests that the frequency of officer-involved shootings is largely a product of specific organizational policies and practices within specific state and local law enforcement agencies. Chevigny 1995 offers a comparative historical and contemporary analysis of deadly force and other forms of police violence in several large cities in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Zimring 2017 is the most thorough treatment of the police deadly force phenomenon in American police.

  • Alpert, Geoffrey P., and Lorie Ann Fridell. 1992. Police vehicles and firearms: Instruments of deadly force. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

    Alpert and Fridell present a summary of research into deadly force by police. This dated book also summarizes the types of use of force policies and firearms training requirements that are in place in law enforcement agencies.

  • Chevigny, Paul. 1995. Edge of the knife: Police violence in the Americas. New York: New Press.

    Chevigny provides a historical and current overview of deadly force and other forms of police violence through a comparative study of numerous cities in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean, including Los Angeles, New York, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Jamaica, and Mexico City.

  • Fyfe, James J. 1981. Observations on police deadly force. Crime & Delinquency 27.3: 376–389.

    DOI: 10.1177/001112878102700305

    Fyfe outlines the common law development regarding the power of the police to use deadly force, and argues against the fleeing felon rule as overly broad and obsolete. The article provides numerous recommendations for law enforcement agency policies on the use of deadly force, investigations into deadly force incidents, and firearms training.

  • Fyfe, James J. 1988. Police use of deadly force: Research and reform. Justice Quarterly 5.2: 165–205.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418828800089691

    Fyfe reviews deadly force reforms of the 1980s resulting from the US Supreme Court opinion in Tennessee v. Garner. He concludes that the frequency of police use of deadly force is largely influenced by the organizational policies and philosophies of law enforcement agencies, and that levels of community violence are only marginal predictors of police use of deadly force.

  • Geller, William A. 1982. Deadly force: What we know. Journal of Police Science & Administration 10.2: 151–177.

    Geller surveys the empirical research, mostly from the 1970s, on police deadly force in American law enforcement agencies. There were no official nationwide data available, and the study summarizes findings from studies of individual (typically large urban) police departments. Geller noted that additional research is needed into all levels of force used by police officers, as well as data on situational determinants in deadly force encounters.

  • Graham v. Connor. 490 U.S. 386 (1989).

    This opinion of the US Supreme Court clarifies an issue that was unresolved in the Court’s opinion four years earlier in Tennessee v. Garner. In Graham v. Connor, the Court held that the reasonableness standard in reviewing use of deadly force is one of objective reasonableness (i.e., a reasonable police officer standard).

  • Zimring, Franklin E. 2017. When police kill. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Zimring provides a thorough overview of police use of deadly force in the United States. He triangulates data from a variety of sources, including official federal data, investigative journalism, and open-source data projects. Findings indicate that there are racial disparities where black males are disproportionately victims of police deadly force incidents. Zimring argues that homicides by police can be reduced through changes to agency-level administrative policies.

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