Using deadly force

Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford says he was following state law and his own departmental policy when he warned “Reclaim the Streets” protesters last month that he’d use every means — including deadly force — to keep them from entering the jail.

State law says that a law-enforcement officer is justified in using deadly force in three situations, including when it appears “reasonably necessary … to prevent the escape of a person from custody imposed upon him as a result of conviction for a felony.”

Medford recalls that the protesters were demanding entrance to the Detention Center to get their fellow protesters out, which he viewed as a potential jailbreak. And since he had “federal prisoners, rapists, robbers and murderers in the jail,” Medford says he wasn’t about to tolerate a situation that could allow convicted felons to escape.

“You don’t go in and try to break people out of jail,” emphasizes the sheriff.

Medford points out that his departmental policy actually sets a higher standard for the use of deadly force than state law.

“Although North Carolina general statutes authorize the use of deadly force against an unarmed and otherwise nondangerous person who is escaping custody imposed for conviction of a felony, deputies of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office are expressly prohibited from using deadly force in this situation,” notes the policy, adopted in 1997. “Deputies may only use deadly force against an escaping convicted felon if deadly force is authorized by other provisions in this policy.”

Those other provisions include cases when a deputy is protecting himself or others from the use of deadly force, and when he or she is arresting or preventing the escape from custody of someone using a deadly weapon or someone who would present an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to others unless apprehended quickly.

Medford says his deputies routinely receive training on when deadly force may be appropriate, including what’s called shoot/don’t shoot scenarios. The sheriff also says his officers must qualify in firearms training twice a year, at which times they would be informed of any changes in the law on the use of deadly force.

The state statute (G.S. 15a-401) also says a law-enforcement officer also is justified in using deadly force when it appears reasonably necessary to:

• defend him/herself or a third person from what the officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force;

• effect an arrest or prevent the escape from custody of a person whom the officer reasonably believes is attempting to escape using a deadly weapon, or who (whether judged by conduct or any other means) presents an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to others unless apprehended without delay.

The statute adds: “Nothing in this subdivision constitutes justification for willful, malicious or criminally negligent conduct by any person which injures or endangers any person or property, nor shall it be construed to excuse or justify the use of unreasonable or excessive force.”

— Tracy Rose

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