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When is a Police Officer Liable for Shooting Another Officer?

May 11th, 2017

At times, in the line of duty, a police officer may be shot or injured by another police officer who is also attempting to carry out his or her duties. When this happens, the officer who fired the shot may face civil liability, depending on the circumstances surrounding the incident.

The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the answer to the question “Is this officer liable for shooting another officer?” must be answered by asking “what would a reasonable officer on the scene have known?”, rather than “what did this officer know?” This standard, also known as the “objective reasonableness” standard, is articulated in Graham v. Connor (1989): “[t]he question is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.”

In other words, when asking whether an officer is liable, the court isn’t interested in asking the officer what he or she thought, knew, or believed at that moment. Instead, they will ask what an ordinary “reasonable” officer, in the same position as the officer who fired the shot, was likely to have thought, known, or believed, and whether that “reasonable” officer would have fired the shot in those circumstances.

But how does the court decide what a “reasonable officer” would have done in that situation? Here, the court generally turns to a big picture view of the entire situation, known as the “totality of the circumstances.” Under the rule laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Arvizu (2002), considering the totality of the circumstances “allows officers to draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences… that might well elude an untrained person.” Put another way, the court will ask how a reasonable, trained police officer would have reacted to the situation based on his or her training– not how a reasonable civilian might have reacted in the same situation.

If a reasonable police officer, considering the totality of the circumstances, would not have fired the shot that struck another officer, the court is likely to hold the officer who did fire the shot liable for doing so.

While officer-on-officer shootings are rare, there are several cases imposing liability on the shooting officer when he or she unreasonably mistook the victim officer for a threat. Shooting a fellow police officer is objectively unreasonable if the shooter “should have been able to recognize that the figure he was shooting was a fellow officer . . . .” Jensen v. City of Oxnard, 145 F.3d 1078, 1086 (9th Cir. 1998).