Opinion

Defense of Others: Why the Ma’Khia Bryant Shooting Was 100 Percent Lawful

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Posted: Apr 27, 2021 12:20 PM
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“To Serve and Protect” is more than a mere police slogan – it is a police duty. And in the case of the shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, Officer Nicholas Reardon was clearly carrying out his duty to protect the life of another.

Most of us know we have a right to self-defense. That means that if someone is trying to harm us, we can legally respond by using whatever force is necessary to meet and repel that force. But when it comes to using force against someone else – including deadly force – there is another closely-related legal right known as the right to defense of others. Also referred to as the defense of “necessity” or “justification,” the notes to the model penal code describe this legal right as follows:

“[T]he rules are the same as those that govern self-defense. There are three basic conditions to be met: force is justified if (a) the actor would be justified…in using such force to protect himself against the injury he believes to be threatened to the other person; (b) under the circumstances as the actor believes them to be, the other person would be justified in using protective force; and (c) the actor believes that his intervention is necessary for the protection of the other person.”

It is worth noting that there is nothing in the law that limits the doctrine of self-defense or defense-of-others to prohibit its use against a minor child. It is self-evident that minors can pose a lethal threat.

In short, if you can use force to defend yourself, I too can use force to defend you – even deadly force if that’s what it takes to defend your life.

I have previously written that police use of force is “never cut and dry.” 

If that is the rule, the Bryant case is the exception that proves the rule. Columbus Police are currently conducting an investigation into all the facts and circumstances of this shooting. After all, every death is a tragedy and the public deserves to know everything that happened and Officer Reardon deserves due process. Nevertheless, we already know a great deal about what happened that day following a detailed Columbus Police press conference where audio and video evidence were released and it appears unlikely that the investigation will uncover any additional core facts beyond what has been released.

In 1989 the Supreme Court of the United States decided the landmark case of Graham v. Connor, which established what is called the “objective reasonableness” standard for police use of force. Police nationwide are trained to know and understand this legal standard and to govern themselves accordingly. In Graham v Conner, Justice Rehnquist told us that police use of force is to be judged not with the clear vision of 20/20 hindsight, but to use an objective standard. In other words, to view it from the perspective of the officer on scene in the heat of the moment and then ask: what would a hypothetical objectively reasonable officer do in like or similar circumstances? With that in mind, let’s consider this case from the perspective of what Officer Reardon was aware of as he responded to this scene.

It is quite clear that Officer Reardon responded to a scene of rapidly escalating chaos – unaware of who was involved, who might be the aggressor, what the relationship was between those involved, or the ages of the parties. Until he arrived on-scene, all that Officer Reardon knew of this chaos was the hearsay related to him by his 911 dispatcher. In a 911 call we hear a female saying “We got…girls here trying to fight us, trying to stab us, trying to put her hands on our grandma. We need a police officer here now.” In a neighbor’s surveillance video, Bryant can be heard screaming “I’m gonna stab the f--- out of you, b----.”

And of course we have the clear “cut and dry” video proof that Bryant was in fact armed with a large knife and was assaulting another female. 

I can tell you from first-hand experience that police officers frequently respond to serious calls with limited information from 911 callers and sometimes have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions based on nothing more than that limited information combined with what they find when they arrive. This is precisely why the legal analysis of police use of force cannot resort to the 20/20 lens of hindsight.

When you put all this together, we are led to the inescapable conclusion that Officer Reardon was justified in using deadly force to defend another person. Indeed, if the female victim of Bryant’s knife attack would have been legally justified to defend herself with deadly force, Officer Reardon was likewise justified to do so on her behalf. To look at it another way, if someone – even a teenage girl – were trying to stab you with a large knife and you were armed with a handgun, what would you do? Or, if Officer Reardon were to roll up while someone was trying to stab you, what would you want him to do? I know my answer.