As I recently noted, some witnesses claim the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, first fired at him as he was running away. Whether he did so has not, to my mind, been firmly established one way or the other.
As I observed, it is not the case that a police officer can never fire a gun at a fleeing suspect. I quoted Supreme Court Justice Byron White: “Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.” I wondered whether Missouri law or precedents say more on the matter. Someone on Twitter pointed out that the case Mattis v. Schnarr indeed addresses the matter.
In that 1976 case, the US. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, ruled:
. . . Missouri statutes . . . permit law enforcement officers to use deadly force to effect the arrest of a person who has committed a felony if the person has been notified that he or she is under arrest and if the force used is restricted to that reasonably necessary to effect the arrest. We hold the statutes unconstitutional as applied to arrests in which an officer uses deadly force against a fleeing felon who has not used deadly force in the commission of the felony and whom the officer does not reasonably believe will use deadly force against the officer or others if not immediately apprehended.
The principle is that a police officer may use potentially deadly force against a fleeing suspect, only if the suspect is likely to endanger the lives of the officer or of others. (It would be helpful to look at current Missouri statutes on the matter.)
If the officer in Ferguson did shoot at Brown as he fled (again, I’m not sure he did), did the officer reasonably believe that Brown posed such a threat? That depends entirely on the nature of the confrontation between the officer and Brown that immediately preceded the shooting. And the facts regarding that confrontation are, as far as I can tell, entirely unclear. Still, it’s useful to at least look at the legal and moral parameters for justifiable uses of force, to see if they possibly apply.