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Police Officers and Self-Defense

According to the Washington Post, almost 900 people have been killed by police officers in the United States this year. These events are being subjected to increasing scrutiny by the public in light of recent controversial killings, such as those of Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald. Public discontent has continued to build as a result of questionable actions by police officers, as well as the response of police administrations.

Some of these killings are undoubtedly legitimate actions performed to protect officers and the public. However, when the legitimacy of the force utilized is questionable and the police officer is charged with an unlawful killing, the officer must prove self-defense in court.

The officer must meet the same legal requirements as any normal citizen in proving self defense. See, e.g., Alexander v. Riccinto, 481 N.W.2d 6, 8 (Mich. Ct. App. 1991). The officer must honestly and reasonably believe that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another individual. An honest belief means that the actor actually, personally believed that the force was necessary at the time. However, this belief must also be reasonable. This means that if another person perceived the same events as the officer, that other person would have also felt that deadly force was necessary. Finally, the force used must be proportional to the potential harm prevented. Deadly force can only be used to prevent death or great bodily harm. Self-defense does not excuse responding with deadly force to prevent anything less than death or great bodily harm.

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