The Shot in the Back Case: Tennessee v. Garner


For centuries in this country, under the authority of the laws of the various states, it was accepted that a police officer had both the right and the duty to use all necessary-even deadly-force to prevent the escape from custody of anyone the officer had reason to believe had committed a felony. The word “felony,” of course, encompasses many serious crimes, including murder. It also includes a wide variety of property crimes. In Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court addressed the following question: Is it consistent with the United States Constitution for a police officer to prevent by gunfire the escape of a person who the officer had reason to believe had committed a nonviolent property crime, but was neither armed nor an immediate danger to any person?

My connection with, and deep concern about, this question began nearly a quarter of a century ago. In the early 1960s, at a time of great racial tension, I was Police Commissioner in Detroit. In two separate instances, application of the “shoot to kill” rule of law resulted in citizen fatalities. It also seriously interfered with the strenuous efforts being made to still strife between the Detroit Police Department and the citizens it served, particularly black citizens. In each instance, as Police Commissioner, I felt governed by the long-standing common law of the State of Michigan and by long-standing Detroit police regulations. I upheld the action taken by the two police officers, but I was made vividly aware of the impracticality and undesirability from society’s viewpoint of the deadly force rule.

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