The rarity of deadly force

The true, but largely untold, story of police forgoing deadly force


In 2018, police made over 10.3 million arrests in the U.S. That same year, police killed 990 people. That’s less than one in 10,000.

Between 2011 and 2015, the number of people who had police contact ranged from 62.9 million to 53.5 million. Taking the lower number of contacts for an average, and using the number of deaths in 2018, that’s less than one in 54,000.

I favor transparency and a national database on police use of deadly force. I’m confident it will show the rarity of deadly force, and the greater rarity of the unjustified use of deadly force. (I understand that unjustifiable deadly force is not a statistic to the victim and their family.) Also, there is much to learn from deadly use of force incidents that could improve officer training and better educate the public.

The profession can learn from incidents where officers forgo the use of deadly force. So, too, can the public.
The profession can learn from incidents where officers forgo the use of deadly force. So, too, can the public. (Police1)

The forgoing of deadly force

What about when police are justified in using deadly force but refrain from doing so? Surely there are valuable lessons there, too – for the profession and the public.

In an online search, I discovered Restraint in the Use of Deadly Force: A Preliminary Study. (“Restraint” in this study meant an officer forgoing deadly force, not the use of physical restraint.)

Written by four professionals with educations and careers in law enforcement, the preliminary study reflected the authors’ discussions over 30 years with thousands of police officers nation-wide while teaching, conducting research and consulting on cases regarding the use of force, including deadly.  

Based on their work and three publications resulting from it, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, awarded a grant to the authors for training law enforcement officers. Ten sites from across the nation were selected, and the training was offered to approximately 50 participants at each site.

During the training, 295 officers with an average of 17 years of police experience completed a confidential survey about their use of force and related issues. The survey revealed a notable pattern of officers forgoing the use of justified deadly force:

  • Officers in the sample were involved in 1,189 situations where deadly force was justified.
  • Officers fired their weapons in 87 of these incidents and refrained from firing in 1,102.

In other words, officers refrained from using justified deadly force 93% of the time.

More research is needed

The authors asked,

If officers risk their personal safety by using restraint in deadly force, why has this phenomenon largely gone unnoticed in the media and research? An analysis of research on the topic of deadly force yields no studies directly related to the use of restraint in deadly force by agents of law enforcement.”

They noted the limits of their preliminary study:

  • It didn’t delve into the inner psychology and perceptions of the officers in their decision to forgo deadly force.
  • The self-reported data from the officers wasn’t validated by objective reports.

And they offered suggestions for future research, such as:

  • What factors lead to officers forgoing deadly force?
  • Does the use of deadly force reduce or increase the inclination of officers to forgo deadly force in subsequent critical incidents?
  • How do individual officers perceive refraining from deadly force?

I asked one of the authors, Dr. Pinizzotto, if he was aware of any research in this area since he and his colleagues published their preliminary study. He wasn’t. My personal online search also found none.

Dr. Pinizzotto suggested agencies document circumstances where officers have drawn their firearms without firing when deadly force was justified. To that, I’d add instances where they have not drawn their firearms when deadly force was justified.

My esteemed Police1 colleague, Chief Joel Schultz, writing about how decisions to forgo force might inform training had a suggestion for how to gather such information:

The days of small departments relying on studies from large agencies with the resources to pay for research or attract grants may be waning. Many officers and administrators have advanced degrees that required using research methods. Collaboration with area colleges or a sharp intern can yield helpful guidance on creating a viable study.”

The need for the other narrative

I don’t have expertise in research or survey design, but this is a narrative that needs to be told. In the absence of academicians taking this on, perhaps the profession needs to become more engaged in telling its own stories.

Chief Schultz provided a viable suggestion for gathering the relevant data. Then you must get it out. If you can get the ear of a Washington Post reporter or writer for The Atlantic Monthly or an investigative reporter with REVEAL – The Center for Investigative Reporting, challenge them to write about it. Consider contacting a local reporter. Of course, you’ll have to be willing to provide them information from your agency.

The profession can learn from incidents where officers forgo the use of deadly force. So, too, can the public. This true, but largely untold, story needs to be heard.  

Add your experience to Police1’s Institutional Knowledge survey

Police1 has created the Institutional Knowledge Project to create a repository of lessons learned around the handling of the situations LEOs face every day. Click here to share your experiences regarding the use of deadly force addressing these general areas:

If you have ever been in a situation where the use of deadly force would have been justified and you did not use deadly force, what led you to refrain from using deadly force? What did you do instead? What was the outcome? Was anyone injured? If so, please specify who (officer, suspect, bystander) was injured and how severely. Would you make the same choice if the same situation arose again?

Click here to participate.

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