A U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed a teenager who was hurling rocks at him near El Paso, Texas, on Monday. A representative from the Border Patrol agents’ union noted that rock throwing can be deadly, and police are permitted to fire in response. How many officers have been killed by rocks?
Three in the United States, but none in almost seven decades. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund has gathered records on all police officers killed in the line of duty since the first U.S. patrolman went down in 1792. According to their database, rocks were responsible for three of 18,983 fatalities. In 1873, Officer Edward Burns of the New York Police Department was walking a suspect to headquarters when an unknown suspect ambushed him and fractured his skull with a rock. In 1876, inmates beat a Utah prison warden to death with a stone they had stuffed in a woolen sock. The last death came in 1942, when Sheriff Ralph Wald Haycraft of Leitchfield, Ky., received word of an assault on a group of soldiers. During his investigation, Haycraft was hit by a thrown rock and died three days later. In addition, seven officers have been killed by bricks, the last in 1932.
A police officer may use deadly force only if a suspect is likely to kill or seriously injure him or any bystanders. To figure out what counts as “likely,” officers must make split-second decisions based on the nature of the weapon, the suspect’s location, and a host of other circumstances—but there are a few general guidelines. Cops are always entitled to shoot a suspect who brandishes a gun. (Firearms have killed 565 officers since 2000.) Empirical research has shown that a suspect can stab an officer if he gets within 21 feet before the officer draws his gun. (Nine officers have been stabbed to death in the last decade.) Most departments teach their cadets that a rock isn’t deadly beyond 50 feet. Unless they are performing a particularly important mission, like aiding a wounded colleague, officers facing a hail of stones should retreat to that perimeter.
These guidelines sometimes fail in practice. In 2003, a Denver police officer killed a 15-year-old mentally disabled boy who refused to drop a knife. Even though the suspect was well within the 21-foot range, a major controversy erupted. The city agreed to a $1.3 million settlement and suspended the officer.
Rock-throwing cases, which are exceedingly common along the U.S.-Mexico border, are classic conundrums for authorities. Some officers have been badly injured because they declined to fire on their assailants. In other cases, judges have punished agents for an itchy trigger finger.
Police used to have more latitude. Until 30 years ago, many states permitted cops to shoot at alleged felons when it was necessary to make an arrest, whether the suspect was dangerous or not. In 1974, Tennessee police shot and killed a short, skinny, unarmed teenage burglar as he tried to escape over a 6-foot-high chain-link fence. Eleven years later, the Supreme Court ruled that Tennessee’s permissive license to use deadly force was unconstitutional. As a result, more than half the states had to change their laws.
Accidents kill officers more often than criminals do. Fifty-four percent of officers who died on the job this decade were killed in accidents, including five who were struck by trains and three in horse-related incidents. And criminals are more likely than cops to die in a confrontation. Officers killed an average of 352 suspects every year between 2000 and 2005, according to the Department of Justice. That translates to approximately four criminals killed justifiably (meaning the standards for using deadly force are satisfied) for every murdered police officer.
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Explainer thanks Geoffrey P. Alpert of the University of South Carolina, Maj. Steve Ijames of Watch House International, Kevin Morison of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.