What You Need to Know About Deadly Force in the United States

June 18, 2015


Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown are among the countless lives that have been lost at the hands of law enforcement officers across the country. The reports of unnecessary or excessive force by police continue to mount, captured by body cameras, dashboard cameras, cell phones and eyewitnesses.

In small and large cities across the country, we are also forced to confront the lack of accountability and the lack of adequate state laws that restrict the use of lethal force under international standards. State laws are either non-existent or lack the requirements to comply with either constitutional law or international standards to protect the lives of individuals, regardless of their race, socio-economic status or other aspects of their identity.

From Ferguson to Baltimore, community members and civil society organizations have taken to the streets to shed light on the instances where officers have used lethal force outside of the need to protect life and before making efforts to deescalate the situation. While many of the nationwide protests have been in response to recent police killings, they are also asking for systemic changes by demanding what international law requires: accountability. As documented in numerous police killings, so-called “less than lethal” weapons like Tasers and chokeholds can also result in serious injury and sometimes death. These, too, should be subject to the same restrictions as lethal force and only be allowed for the purpose of preventing death or serious injury.

Amnesty International’s report “Deadly Force” is a state-by-state legislative survey on police use of lethal force statues in the United States.

The report highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive national review of police use of lethal force laws, policies, training and practices as well as a thorough review and reform of oversight and accountability mechanisms.

This report demonstrates serious concerns regarding the lack of compliance of state laws with either US constitutional law or international standards on the use of force. As a result, we have witnessed what happens when no law is in place, or the standards are so broad that they open the door for misinterpretation, and human rights violations to occur.

Some of the concerns highlighted in the report include legislation that allows for the use of lethal force

  • “to suppress opposition to an arrest,”
  • to arrest someone for a “suspected felony,”
  • to “suppress a riot or mutiny,”
  • or for certain crimes such as burglary.

The report notes that a number of states allow for police officers to kill someone who is attempting to escape from a prison or jail. Others allow private citizens to use lethal force if they are carrying out law enforcement activities, but what is also startling is that no states require specific accountability mechanisms for the use of lethal force by officers, within their use of deadly force statutes.


With the release of “Deadly Force,” Amnesty outlines a number of recommendations for every level of government, recommendations that include but are not limited to the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force to implement much needed reforms to the criminal justice system, including the use of deadly force by police, in addition to calling on the Department of Justice to require, collect and publish data on police killings.

During the United States’s 2015 Universal Periodic Review in Geneva last month, more than half of the 117 countries represented raised concerns and made recommendations based on recent incidents of police killings. So while Amnesty International USA and other organizations across the country will continue to monitor and raise awareness about the unlawful use of lethal force by police, the international community also joins us trying to hold the U.S. government accountable.

Click here to view the full “Deadly Force” report.

Also join us in our efforts stop the unlawful use of force by police: Take Action