Justifiability and culpability in lethal self-defense: Police officers vs. civilians


Some critics argue that legal standards, even when and where equivalent, are differentially applied to officers and civilians. This study examined evaluations of justifiability and culpability for police officers versus civilians, as well as White shooters versus Black shooters, in a 2✕2 factorial experiment. It also explored how personal attitudes and characteristics correspond to those evaluations.


A national sample of 2492 online respondents evaluated culpability and justifiability involving a claim of lethal self-defense involving mistake of fact. After reviewing facts about the case, watching video of the incident, and being given jury instructions for murder and self-defense, respondents were asked to evaluate the justifiability of the shooting on a 6-point scale and render a verdict.


Police officers and Black shooters were evaluated more favorably. Pre-existing confidence in the police demonstrated direct effects and interaction effects on perceived justifiability and likelihood of acquittal.


These results reveal a double standard that benefits police in cases of lethal self-defense. The strong correlation between pre-existing confidence in the police and acquittal of police officers indicates a need for further research on how a generalized public trust in police impacts particularized evaluations of conduct in specific cases.

Published in the Journal of Criminal Justice.

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