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Unarmed but still dangerous: The facts behind some Headlines.

By Lt. Tracy Barnhart OHPS

Tactical Thursday Series

We need more balanced and comprehensive reporting of police use of force against “unarmed” individuals.

When police shoot an “unarmed” individual, the implication or outright accusation by media and activists is often that the deadly force was unjustified because the subject, without a weapon, was “defenseless” and thus could not have posed a threat.

After reviewing all reported cases across a two-year period, found that:

“When police officers used deadly force during an encounter with an unarmed citizen, they were, in fact, facing an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to themselves or a third person” in nearly 90 percent of the situations.

The rest involved “accidental shootings or unintentional discharges” rather than deliberate targeting.

Unarmed subjects shot by intent included those who were attempting to disarm an officer, drown an officer, throw an officer from a bridge or rooftop, strangle an officer, gesturing as if armed with a real weapon, keeping hands concealed despite commands and charging toward an officer with apparent intent to assault.

“Being unarmed,” the study concludes, “Does not mean ‘not dangerous.’”


While the shooting of unarmed individuals is a particularly sensitive flashpoint in the current contentious debate over police practices, the public reporting of these events “often lacks contextual details necessary to make a reasoned judgment” about whether a given shooting is justified.

“What dominates the media headlines [and drives protester outrage] is a modern-day story of David and Goliath; an underdog (unarmed citizen) set upon by an establishment villain (armed police officer) in a mismatched contest on an uneven playing field.”

With “unarmed” connoting “not dangerous or threatening,” the offender is “often lauded as a martyr in the encounter,” as if he were “someone walking down the street minding their own business” when “summarily executed” by an “unreasonable, biased” cop. “Unfortunately,” the reality is, “most onlookers believe that if a police officer is not punished for using force against an unarmed person, then they are not held accountable.”

Hoping to supplant emotional mythology with facts, we set out to fill the “vacuum of contextual details” about unarmed shootings.


Most of the unarmed fatalities involved males (95 percent), white (40 percent) or black (38 percent), aged 20-39 (64 percent). Regionally, unarmed encounters occurred most often in the south (38 percent) and west (35 percent) and least in the northeast (5 percent).

The actions of these individuals clearly shattered the myth that they were defenseless and non-threatening when they encountered the officers who killed them.

Nearly half were actively engaged in a physical assault on the officer when shot. This most often involved the use of “personal weapons” (hands, feet, teeth, head) and wrestling or struggling with the officer. Second most common was an attempt to disarm the officer. The physical assault category also includes actual disarming of the shooter or other officers of their gun, baton, CEW, handcuffs, or other equipment; attempts to drown the officer or throw him or her off a bridge, roof, stairs, or other elevated surface; choking the officer; or pushing the officer to the ground and then mounting him.

In more than a third of the cases, the involved officer perceived the “threat of an imminent assault.” This includes “advancing/charging toward the officer” or making other “threatening or aggressive movement”; concealing hands “during a crime or flight therefrom”; assuming a “shooting or fighting stance” empty handed or with an object resembling or mistaken for a weapon; and reaching where a weapon might be hidden.

In a few instances, the unarmed suspect was shot while “escaping or eluding officers using a vehicle, recklessly endangering the public or other officers.”

In all, roughly 9 out of 10 of the “unarmed” offenders were presenting an active or potentially lethal or severely injurious threat to the involved officer or others when shot. Most were not fleeing but were “at least standing their ground against the officer or were not under control,” (Those shot accidentally or through unintended discharges comprised about 12 percent of the total.)

“When police officers used force,” “their actions were almost always consistent with the accepted legal and policy principles that govern law enforcement.”


Implicit in the findings is the need for more balanced and comprehensive reporting of police use of force against “unarmed” individuals.

“When the media portray the victim as unarmed and therefore defenseless (without additional context),” that can “certainly influence public opinion as well as [the] legal outcome.” It becomes “easier to persuade onlookers to accept the argument that the shooting is unjustified because the victim was unarmed.” And emotional assumptions “predicated on rumors, limited information, or lies” then overrun hard evidence in the public psyche.

As a case in point, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “where [the] widely held assumptions [that] Brown was unarmed and did not pose a threat to the officer could not be overcome...notwithstanding the factual evidence that Brown physically assaulted the officer.”

When the facts were presented, “a large segment of the population failed to modify” their unarmed-and-defenseless assumption. “Indeed, the objective evidence was a product of a failed criminal justice system and illegitimate, biased investigators.”

When relevant information is “withheld or omitted, it is difficult if not impossible to reach a sound [judgment], which is what happens when citizens are labeled by the media as unarmed during fatal police shooting without further explanation of the characteristics of the encounter....”

“The assumption that unarmed citizens are not dangerous, violent, or threatening is itself dangerous to the lives of officers and the public they are sworn to protect.”

In passing, “The risk of dying from a police-citizen encounter is exceptionally low and an unjustified fatality is even lower.” It’s a fact that medical errors by doctors and nurses “kill many thousands more Americans annually than do the police.” Some contend that “the American medical system is the leading cause of death and injury in the United States.” Yet there is “not nearly the same level of public outcry” about that as about police shootings.

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