Question: How do courts determine if a police shooting of a suspect violated the suspect’s civil rights?
Answer: Police shootings are judged from the totality of the circumstances.
The test to see if a police shooting violated the 4th Amendment is, “unreasonableness under the circumstances.” In assessing whether a police shooting is reasonable, the totality of the circumstances is not limited to the precise moment when the officer discharged their weapon. Rather, all of the events that occurred around the time of the shooting must be assessed. The actions of the officer leading to the shooting are relevant. An officer who shoots a suspect in an effort to protect himself cannot escape liability, if the danger they faced was created by their own unreasonable conduct. The reasonableness inquiry requires a court to carve up the incident into segments and judge each on its own to see if the officer was reasonable at each stage.
The analysis of the objective reasonableness of an officer’s actions must be from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with 20/20 vision of hindsight. This analysis must allow for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation. What is important is the amount and quality of the information known to the officer at the time they fired their weapon.