How Can Police Justify Shooting At A Suspect 33 Times?

There are protests in Lynwood, California after Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officers fired 33 shots at an armed suspect at busy intersection on Saturday.


Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials on Sunday displayed photos and a video appearing to show a man holding a gun just before he was fatally shot Saturday by deputies in an incident that has generated debate about police use of force.

Sheriff’s officials said at a news conference that the man, Nicholas Robertson, 28, fired six to seven shots into the air on a residential street in Lynwood before walking into a bustling shopping district on Long Beach Boulevard around 11 a.m.

He entered at least one business on the boulevard, “behaving erratically with gun in hand,” said Capt. Steve Katz of the sheriff’s homicide unit. A video displayed at the news conference showed Robertson on the street appearing to hold a gun as the two deputies arrived.

Katz said “public safety was critical here” because there were people on the street, including some at a gas station that Robertson was walking toward. Robertson at one point pointed the gun in the deputies’ direction and ignored their commands for him to drop the weapon, he said.

The deputies opened fire, and in the video released Saturday, continued to shoot as Robertson was crawling. Authorities said he was continuing to hold the gun at that time. In all, one deputy fired 16 shots and the other fired 17.


At this time, there are two known videos of the incident, and there may be more surveillance camera footage and cell phone camera footage of the shooting that haven’t yet been released. You can watch both of the known videos (minus the editorializing you’ll find on some YouTube copies) at the LA Times.

So, what would justify officers shooting at anyone 33 times? What would justify them continuing to fire at a man who was down and crawling away?

While every state has a slightly different definition, the use of deadly force is generally justified if a person is an immediate threat to cause serious bodily injury or death the person under attack or a third party. Law enforcement officers have a slightly expanded set of guidelines which allows them to also use deadly force against a violent felony suspect they believe is an immanent to threat to the public under the so-called fleeing felon rule.

As every shooting is different, it is impossible to flatly claim that “X” number of shots is enough. A officer-involved shootings may involve a single shot or just several (which is typical) up to roughly a thousand rounds (Boston Marathon bomber search) or even more than that (the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout saw rough 1,750 rounds expended).


The number of shots fired depends entirely on the behavior of the person being shot at by police.

If the officer misses the suspect entirely and the suspect decides to then become compliant with the officer’s commands, that one shot missed shot was enough.

If an officer or officers encounter a more determined suspect, they may be required to keep shooting until the damage of bullets upon the suspect’s body forces him to stop being a threat, either through blood loss or a central nervous system hit.

In this instance, Robertson appears to have gone down during the first volley of shots fired, but he does not relinquish control of his firearm. He instead maintains control of his weapon and begins crawling away.

As he is still a threat and still attempting to maneuver while controlling his weapon, officers appear legally justified in continuing to shoot at him, as he was apparently moving towards a family of innocent bystanders. The screen capture above shows Robertson crawling with the gun still in his hand after it appears that all 33 shots have been fired in his direction.

It is quite obvious that he is still in control of the weapon, a .45 ACP pistol.

It is quite obvious that as his head is still up and he is still crawling forward that he has neither suffered  a fight-ending central nervous system (CNS) hit, nor has he suffered enough blood loss at this time to lose consciousness, though apparently he did so shortly after the video stopped.


The officers appear to have thus stopped shooting when Robertson stopped being a threat to other citizens in the area, of which there were many.

While it is certainly fair to conclude that the officers expended a significant number of shots to get Mr. Robertson to stop being a threat to the citizens of Lynwood, this crucial image that shows him to still be armed to the very end suggests that officers had reason to consider him a threat from the first shot to the last.

We’ll know more after an autopsy and full investigation, but the evidence known at this time would seem to justify the officers’ belief that Mr. Robertson continued to pose an imminent deadly force threat to the residents of Lynwood until the last round was expended.

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