Police Skills Police Test Study Guide

When Should Police Officers Use Deadly Force?

May 6th, 2021
when should police officers use deadly force

When Should Police Officers Use Deadly Force

The force continuum offers guidance on when to apply reasonable use of force. For instance, it would be improper to kill a suspect if he posed no immediate threat to himself, a police officer, or anyone in the community.

There are many straightforward examples of deadly force such as this, but other cases are much more complex to adjudge.

Deadly force is that which, when enacted, is likely to cause death. There is no certainty that death will occur, but it is reasonable to assume that – based on probability and the likelihood of severe damage – that death is a likely outcome.

The Code of Federal Regulations (1047.7) spells out the conditions in which it is appropriate for law enforcement officers to use deadly force. Below, we delve into these examples and learn more about when officers are legally warranted to deploy lethal force in each specific circumstance. As prospective police officers, it is incumbent upon you to learn about these regulations and the force continuum.

Furthermore, it is worth reflecting that deadly force is not applied in immediately rational circumstances. These are often split-second decisions that law enforcement officers must make where they feel an imminent threat it at play. In many ways, it is among the most serious decisions that a police officer must make.

During the police interview exam, you can reasonably expect to be asked a dynamic oral board question that involves deadly force – on whether it should or should not be applied, and what your rationale is behind this decision. As in real life, you will not be given much time to answer the question. Instead, you must instinctively know what the most correct course of action is.

To ask, ‘when should police officers use deadly force’, then, can become a complex legal argument.


As CFR 1047.7 states:

“When deadly force reasonably appears to be necessary to protect a protective force officer who reasonably believes himself or herself to be in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.”

This is the most straightforward and reasonable example where deadly force can be applied.

The key part of this phrase is “reasonably believes”.

There are potential circumstances in which an officer can “reasonably believe” themselves to be at risk of death, but where no risk existed. However, in these circumstances, the weight of evidence is on the side of the police officer because it is considered an immediate threat nonetheless.

Serious Offenses Against Persons

As CFR 1047.7 states:

When deadly force reasonably appears to be necessary to prevent the commission of a serious offense against a person(s) in circumstances presenting an imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm (e.g. sabotage of an occupied facility by explosives).”

This is a version of self-defense, what you might call community self-defense. In this case, police officers are obligated to prevent outcomes that are considered an immediate threat to members of the public.

The example the CFR gives is the detonation of a facility, but we can think of many other examples in which this can apply. Ultimately, protection of the public against the risk of death is what police officers are sworn to uphold, and this is made manifest in this clause.

Nuclear Weapons

As CFR 1047.7 states:

When deadly force reasonably appears to be necessary to prevent the theft, sabotage, or unauthorized control of a nuclear weapon or nuclear explosive device.”

Police officers and nuclear weapons are not routinely used in the same sentence, but here is a case in which deadly force may be applied – however unlikely officers are to experience this specific circumstance.

Police officers can apply deadly force in situations where nuclear weapons are likely to be stolen, sabotaged, or taken control of from an unauthorized body, person, or organization.

Note that this rule also applies to nuclear material which, for instance, may be shipped from one site to another.


As CFR 1047.7 states:

When deadly force reasonably appears to be necessary to apprehend or prevent the escape of a person reasonably believed to: (i) have committed an offense of the nature specified in paragraphs (a)(1) through (a)(4) 1 of this section; or (ii) be escaping by use of a weapon or explosive or who otherwise indicates that he or she poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the protective force officer or others unless apprehended without delay.”

The purpose of apprehending a suspect is to end the crime plus the possibility of additional crime taking place in the interim period. The suspect is considered a high-risk individual if they have attempted to escape from any of the risk factors discussed above.

Furthermore, the clause states that either police officers or members of the public are at imminent risk if this person is not apprehended without delay.

Firearm Use in Cases of Deadly Force

Not all cases of deadly force involve immediate use of a firearm.

In other words, there are cases in which law enforcement officers are at an imminent threat to their life. Perhaps a suspect is about to draw a firearm of their own and the police officer must act immediately to protect their life or the lives of others.

In other cases, it is preferred – recommended – that police officers:

  • Initiate a warning – an order to halt. There may be cases in which a suspect will cooperate with officers once they realize the risk to their own life. This also prevents the use of deadly force which, as we have learned, must only be applied in the most serious cases where no other viable alternative option exists.

However, the CFR states that this warning must only be initiated “if feasible…”, leaving open the possibility for officers to apply deadly force if the case warrants such an action.

Take Home Message

Remember – you are likely to be asked oral board questions on the application of deadly force. You may be asked direct questions about the force continuum or, alternatively, you may be asked about deadly force as part of a wider dynamic style question.

It is important that you research when deadly force can be applied and, most importantly, your ability to rationalize that decision and back-up your answer with evidence and persuasive argument.

Do that, and you will score high on this part of the police officer exam.

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