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When Police Stand Their Ground

By Caroline Light

Police car roofFirst passed in 2005 in Florida, “Stand Your Ground” laws provide criminal and civil immunity to people who use lethal violence to defend themselves when they are reasonably afraid for their own or another’s safety. Since their passage in over half the states, the laws have been shown to exacerbate our nation’s already unjust practices of adjudicating self-defense. The laws amplify the impact of existing racial and gender biases, by making it easier, for example, for white (or white-appearing) people to kill non-whites without legal repercussions. In spite of proponents’ arguments that SYG laws protect women from “abusers,” they rarely provide immunity for women who defend themselves from their greatest statistical threat, their own intimate partners and exes. In other words, SYG laws tend to provide legal immunity for socially dominant actors who claim self-defense, while amplifying the danger to those who are most likely to be perceived as criminal threats. 

It is not surprising that states with SYG laws have experienced a significant increase in incidents of homicide. The laws effectively deputize part of the citizenry, encouraging civilians with guns to “shoot first, and ask questions later” whenever they feel threatened. As we witnessed in the shooting death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, the laws confer exculpatory power on armed citizens even when their targets are unarmed and not participating in any criminal activity. Identity politics matter in determining what counts as a “reasonable threat”; George Zimmerman’s jury found it “reasonable” for him to have been afraid of an unarmed Black teenager carrying candy and a can of iced tea.

Given the already concerning trend of SYG laws to enable a more lethally empowered citizenry, it is perhaps not surprising that police officers have invoked it to escape prosecution when they are accused of using excessive violence against civilians. Jermaine McBean’s 2013 death at the hands of Broward County, FL police provides a tragic example. McBean, a thirty-three-year-old Black computer programmer, was shot while walking down a street with a Winchester air pellet gun slung over his shoulder. Listening to music through earbuds, McBean failed to respond when police commanded him to halt and put his hands up. He was shot three times by Deputy Peter Peraza, who claimed that he was in fear for his life when he fired the fatal shots. A judge dismissed Peraza’s manslaughter charge. 

Peraza’s was likely the first case in which law enforcement invoked SYG in order to escape criminal prosecution, but since then, other SYG claims by police have followed. In 2015, Nouman Raja, an off-duty police officer, shot and killed thirty-one-year-old Corey Jones, a Black motorist who had pulled to the side of the road in Palm Beach Gardens. Raja was immediately fired, charged with manslaughter, and placed on house arrest to await trial. However, Raja’s lawyers have since filed a claim under SYG, arguing that Raja was in fear for his life when he fatally shot Jones.

Law enforcement professionals already enjoy robust legal immunities, especially when they claim to have used force in response to fears of imminent bodily harm. Granting police SYG immunity would spare them a trial by jury in cases where they claim to have killed in self-defense, even when the deceased was not participating in criminal activity. We should maintain high expectations for professionals whose work involves protecting the citizenry. Granting police SYG legal immunity would undermine the high standards of professionalism and vigilance expected of law enforcement. The law’s application to police would also challenge efforts to curtail the use of unnecessary force against civilians, while naturalizing the belief that one’s perception of threat is a viable excuse for killing. Perhaps most perniciously, SYG law’s dependence on “reasonable” perceptions of threat places non-dominant social actors, particularly those whose race and gender identity regularly subject them to criminalization, in a position of increased danger. Not only are they excluded from the protective logic of SYG immunity; they are treated as reasonable targets of police and civilian violence. In a world where many police and “armed citizens” fear Black masculinity itself, our unchecked perceptions of threat will only become increasingly lethal.


About the Author 

Caroline Light is director of undergraduate studies in the Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South and Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.