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When Can Police Open Fire on Protesters?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

When protests have the potential of becoming violent, police often open fire on crowds.

Even those who support law enforcement in maintaining civil order can recognize that firing on civilians is an extreme use of government power, and it can't be used recklessly.

So when can police open fire on protesters?

Firing Tear Gas Into a Crowd

There are non-lethal methods of dispersing a crowd, and tear gas and pepper spray are still used by many law enforcement agencies. Although it may be heavily regulated, tear gas is actually legal for civilians to purchase in many states.

In California, for example, adults with no criminal convictions or substance abuse issues can purchase and use tear gas canisters for self-defense purposes. And according to Slate, although chemical weapons like tear gas have been barred from use in wars, they are typically legal for police to use as riot-dispersal tools.

Tear gas canisters were used by police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Sunday in order to quell protests over (ironically) police violence. According to the Albuquerque Journal, police used tear gas on protesters after they refused "commands from police to leave."

There doesn't seem to be a hard and fast rule for when police can start using tear gas on a crowd, but reasonable fear of a dangerous riot might not be a bad place to start. Of course, like with pepper spray, tear gas victims can potentially sue their police counterparts for excessive use of force.

Using Firearms on a Crowd

Tear gas and pepper spray are non-lethal methods of controlling a potential riot, but what happens when a police officer fires a lethal weapon, like a gun?

Whether it is a dangerous situation from a riot or from a single individual, police generally cannot open fire unless:

  • A dangerous felon is fleeing and presents imminent danger upon escape, or
  • An officer or other person is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry told the Journal that protesters had thrown rocks at police and tried to break windows on a police cruiser with an officer trapped inside. If protesters pose lethal or serious injury risk to officers, then police may be legally authorized to open fire.

However, as many protesters know well, deaths at police hands are far from entirely justified. If you believe you've been the victim of unjustified police force during a protest, you should contact an experienced civil rights attorney near you.

Editor's Note, April 12, 2016: This post was first published in April, 2014. It has since been updated.

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