Details are still unfolding about the circumstances of Korryn Gaines’s death, but one question lingers: Did law enforcement actually have to shoot her?
The episode began when Gaines barricaded herself in her apartment with a shotgun after Baltimore County police attempted to serve her an arrest warrant for traffic violations around 9:20 am on Monday. An hours-long standoff with Gaines, a black woman, and police ensued.
According to the Baltimore Sun, officers obtained a warrant, charging Gaines first- and second-degree assault around 12:43 pm after officers saw she her point a the shotgun at an officer. Officers say they tried to talk Gaines down to no avail. Gaines repeatedly pointed her weapon at police and made threatening statements.
At 3 pm, police report, Gaines allegedly said, "If you don’t leave, I’m going to kill you." In response, one officer opened fire. Gaines shot back. At which point Gaines was shot down, and her 5-year-old son, caught in the crossfire, was also injured.
"We are of course extremely upset at an event like this," police spokesperson Elise Armacost said at a press conference, according to NBC News. "We do not like to be in a position of having to use lethal force, but this was a situation where our officers exercised patience for hours and hours."
But did police actually have to shoot her? Was there anything they could have done to prevent putting Gaines and her son in danger?
The legal standards for use of force don’t incorporate all the pertinent details of the situation
The ACLU of Maryland points out police have a "moral obligation," when resorting to force, but that from the beginning, there should be a "legal obligation, to act in ways that don't predictably result in the opportunity or necessity to use force."
As Vox’s Dara Lind has pointed out, the legal standard for lethal use of force "often boils down to what the officer believed when the force was used (something that is notoriously difficult to prove), regardless of how much of a threat actually existed." In this case, justifying the use of force is based on what Baltimore officers believed about how much of a threat Gaines posed at the time they shot her.
In part, the standards were set by two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s to determine what was a reasonable use of deadly force by police: Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor.
In Tennessee, the Supreme Court ruled on a case where an officer shot a 15-year-old boy fleeing a burglary — he had stolen $10 from a purse in the house. The Court ruled that police couldn’t just shoot a suspect who was escaping. Rather, David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told Lind, "They basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."
The Graham case involved a civil lawsuit by a man who survived a rough encounter with police. His face was shoved into the hood of a car, his foot was broken, all while experiencing a diabetic attack. The Court did not rule on whether the use of force was justified. Rather, the Court said the officers couldn’t simply justify their actions because their intentions were good. Instead, officers had to prove their actions were "objectively reasonable" compared to the conduct of other officers and similar circumstances.
This has created two major legal standards for use of lethal force: One is the "defense-of-life" standard to protect the officer’s life and those of innocent people; the second is to prevent escape, assuming that there is probable cause that the suspect is a threat.
But the legal standard also gives law enforcement substantial legal flexibility. No actual threat has to be posed. Rather, officers only have to believe that there is a threat. And while this "objectively reasonable" standard aims to give law enforcement space to make split-second decisions, ideally, for their safety and those of nearby bystanders, critics have tried to pivot the question from what is justified to what is preventable.
"We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable," Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. "Most are preventable."
Legal standards for use of lethal force don’t address racial disparities
Given that officers are allowed to determine a suspect’s threat level based on belief, cultural norms have to be taken into consideration, including race.
According to the Baltimore Sun, Gaines legally purchased her gun last year. But does having a gun alone constitute a threat? The recent high-profile shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling show the answer to that question isn’t so simple.
Castile and Sterling were both black men who each had guns in open carry states. By law, they were allowed to carry. Sterling did not have a license to carry, but a police officer would not have known that upon first impression — in a state like Louisiana, open carry is an assumed norm. Yet, in both situations the officers involved said they feared for their lives due to the presence of the gun.
One response to this could be discussing gun control — which also benefits police officers. More police officers are killed on duty in states with more guns. Davis added to the Washington Post, police "need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun. When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."
But gun control doesn’t address the fact that, even when a gun is carried legally, not everyone’s right to carry is protected. Nor does gun control account for the racially disparate application of force by police.
Studies, even using video game simulations, show police officers hold subconscious biases: An officer will shoot a black suspect more readily than a white suspect. And these biases play out in the real world.
In a 2014 review of FBI data, Lind found that law enforcement officers in the US kill black people at disproportionate rates. In 2012, African Americans accounted for 31 percent of victims killed by cops despite making up only 13 percent of the population. According to ProPublica, black teens were 21 times more likely to be killed by police officers between 2010 and 2012 than their white counterparts. On top of all that, police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings become available.
Training officers to become aware of the prejudices they carry on the job is imperative to making sure black people aren’t seen as a threat for simply being black. But mechanisms for more stringent legal standards for use of force and accountability for when force is used are necessary as well.
"If we are to stem the toll of police violence in this country, especially against black and brown Americans, and make policing itself safer, the laws, policies, and tactical training of officers has to change to explicitly align with the goal that everyone makes it out alive," wrote the ACLU of Maryland.
Justifying an officer involved shooting isn’t as simple as putting all the fragments of the case together. A part of it is also looking at the attitudes and laws used to frame the story — ones that make it uncomfortably easy to treat lethal use of force as the only option.