Trends and Patterns of Justifiable Homicide: A Comparative Analysis

By Alvarez, Alexander | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1992 | Go to article overview

Trends and Patterns of Justifiable Homicide: A Comparative Analysis


Alvarez, Alexander, Violence and Victims


This paper reports the first national level analysis of police and citizen justifiable homicides for a twelve year period. Utilizing data from the Comparative Homicide File, trends and characteristics of police and citizen justifiable homicides are described and reviewed. Particular emphasis is given to comparing justifiable homicides to criminal homicides. The results establish that while similar to criminal homicide, police and citizen justifiable homicides differ significantly in terms of factors such as circumstance, relationship, weapons, and racial characteristics.

This paper reports the findings of an investigation into the nature of justifiable homicides in the U.S. Justifiable homicides are defined by the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) as the killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty or the killing during the commission of a felony of a felon by a private citizen. To date there has been no comprehensive analysis of patterns of justifiable homicide across the U.S. While criminal homicide receives the most public and scholarly attention, lethal violence in the U.S. takes many different forms, most of which remain unexamined. Theoretical and empirical links need to be developed among the different types of violence, both legitimate and illegitimate, if an accurate understanding of violence is to be achieved. There is some evidence that some types of lethal violence affect the perpetration of other forms of lethal violence (Archer & Gartner, 1984; Bowers, 1984). This indicates a need for an examination of the similarities and differences, as well as the interaction among different forms of violence. This work attempts to address this issue by examining justifiable homicides and relating the characteristics of this type of killing to criminal homicides. Comparing justifiable homicides to criminal homicides will provide important insights into how similar these two types of lethal violence are. For example, the literature indicates that there are important racial differences in the criminal homicide rates. African-Americans are disproportionately at risk for both criminal homicide perpetration and victimization. These differences and their possible causes have been the source of considerable research and debate (Corzine & Huff- Corzine, 1992; Hawkins, 1983; Sampson, 1985,1987). This analysis will help determine whether these same racial patterns are found with justifiable homicides. Prior research also indicates that African-Americans are at greater risk of having police officers use deadly force on them (Binder & Scharf, 1982; Blumberg, 1989; Fyfe, 1982). Whether or not this study replicates these findings, and whether or not civilian justifiable homicides also illustrate this characteristic are important issues that are also explored in this work. Other factors such as time trends, age, sex, weapons, and circumstances will also be examined and comparisons made between civilian and police justifiable homicides as well as to criminal homicides.

One important reason for examining time trends is because many states have changed their laws over the last 30 years, placing more restrictions on police in terms of when the use of deadly force is permissable (Blumberg, 1989; Kuykendall, 1981; Milton, Halleck, Lardner, & Albrecht, 1977; Sherman, 1986). This trend culminated in 1985 when the U.S. supreme court enacted a landmark decision on police justifiable homicides forcing states to modify their statutes, or switch to the model penal code, which is more restrictive. By examining the justifiable homicide rates over time, it can be determined whether this movement toward more restrictive laws is reflected in fewer police justifiable homicides, and whether or not changes in civilian rates follow the same patterns as police rates.

This analysis utilized justifiable homicide data for police and citizens compiled from the Comparative Homicide File1 (Williams & Straus, 1988). The data set allowed detailed examination of trends, characteristics, and patterns of justifiable homicides across the U. …

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