Can You Use Self-Defense Against Cops?

“That line between saying, ‘Hey, I'm defending myself’ and ‘I'm resisting arrest,’ is very gray.”
September 10, 2021, 12:55pm
Police hold a line on the fourth day of protests on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Police hold a line on the fourth day of protests on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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When 29-year-old Othal Wallace led the Daytona Police Department on a two-day cross-state search after shooting a cop who’d stopped him outside an apartment building, many Black activists rushed to his defense.

“He is a warrior. He is a freedom fighter for the Black nation,” Krystal Muhammad, national chairwoman of the New Black Panther Party, said in a YouTube video. “The pigs and the white media are doing a slam campaign on our brother because he had the courage to stand up and not allow himself to be slaughtered.”

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Wallace is a former member of an offshoot of the New Black Panther Party, the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which is known for encouraging its members to commit acts of violence in furtherance of Black nationalism (as well as preaching hatred against the Jewish and LGBTQ communities).

But questionable affiliations don’t negate someone’s rights. And the night Wallace shot 26-year-old officer Jason Raynor in the head following a brief scuffle, the officer wouldn’t answer why he was being stopped in the first place. 

“Sir. Come on now. Don’t do this,” Wallace is heard saying on police bodycam footage released shortly after the shooting. “Why are you asking me if I live here?”

Though Wallace was eventually found, arrested, and currently faces a possibility of the death penalty for the officer’s death, experts told VICE News that anyone who claims they used self-defense after injuring or killing a member of law enforcement is going to need way more than a legion of defenders online to prove their actions were legally justified, even under the most perspicuous of circumstances.

“Because the police are given kind of a wide array of power to do their job, that’s a tough play,”  Colorado defense attorney Kevin Cahill said. “That line between saying, ‘Hey, I'm defending myself’ and ‘I'm resisting arrest’ is very gray.”

According to Cahill, claiming self-defense against law enforcement would force someone to overcome two already difficult burdens of proof at once: justifying that their use of force was reasonable and proving that the officer in question was overstepping the responsibilities of the job or doing something illegal when he put someone’s life in danger.

Proving both can be damn near impossible in a court of law.

“You have to, A, show what they're doing is completely unreasonable, and B, that your action in response to feeling threatened is reasonable in the situation,” Cahill said.

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And whatever the situation, lethal force—or the use of a firearm—almost certainly wouldn’t be included.

“You can’t respond to someone saying, ‘I’m going to kick your ass’ by pulling out a gun and shooting them,” he continued. “Most people are going to say that’s not very reasonable”

“That line between saying, ‘Hey, I'm defending myself,’ and ‘I'm resisting arrest,’ is very gray.”

Even in Ohio, where self-defense laws were recently expanded to no longer require armed citizens to retreat from situations where they feel threatened, someone would have a tough time trying to use their weapon in situations where a cop may have gone too far.

“Ordinary citizens, at least in Ohio, have the same right of self-defense, as does a police officer,” self-defense attorney James Owen of Koeing and Owen LLC in Columbus told VICE News. “But you can’t exercise self-defense to avoid an order.”

Even in situations where someone may be using their right to self-defense to preserve the life of someone else, the legal proceedings that would follow could still be one-sided.

“Regardless of what facts are essentially known and unchallenged, you're in a heap of very serious trouble,” he said. “If the question posed to a jury during closing arguments include, ‘Do you trust your local police?’—at least in every place I’ve practiced here in Ohio—the defendant is almost always going to lose.”

One of the few instances of someone successfully claiming self-defense against members of law enforcement was decided recently in Hennepin County Court. But even that rare outcome directly showcases the disparity in how officers overstepping their duties are treated compared to the average citizen.

Earlier this month, U.S. Army veteran Jaleel Stallings was acquitted of second-degree attempted murder charges and multiple counts of assault after arguing that he fired his pistol at an unmarked police van in self-defense in May 2020.

The incident happened during intense protests in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd. The same court that found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering him would later find Stallings justified in his actions.

Stallings was trying to get into his car one night after being out protesting with a group of friends when the unmarked van came around the corner with its side door open. Someone from inside who Stallings claims he couldn’t see started firing a weapon.

“We’re rolling down Lake Street. The first fuckers we see, we’re just hammering ’em with 40s,” an officer in the van said according to body camera footage recounted in court documents obtained by the Minnesota Reformer. The officers were referring to the blunt, non-lethal rounds used to stop and deter people without severely injuring them, though the weapons have been known to do so anyway.

When the rounds struck Stallings in the chest, he recalled the sensation feeling similar to when a bullet grazed him years prior. Assuming he’d once again been shot at with real bullets, Stallings said he aimed low toward the front of the van when he returned fire to avoid hitting any potential bystanders while scaring off shooters.

But as soon as Stallings saw SWAT members jump out of the van, he immediately dropped his weapon and surrendered; the officers beat him and fractured one of his eye sockets. They also initially denied that they ever fired at Stallings and only later changed their story in court that December.

Though a Hennepin County judge ruled that the officers’ actions were objectively unreasonable, according to the AP—which let Stallings off the hook—none of them weren’t disciplined for their actions. Stallings was facing 40 years in prison. 

Another rare instance of someone successfully claiming self-defense against the police happened just last year in Florida, where “Stand Your Ground” laws allow legal gun owners to use deadly force to protect their property from intruders. 

John DeRossett, a Port St. John man, heard screams from his adult niece after she answered the front door of his home one night in 2015. She’d been confronted by a plainclothes officer who took her into custody for her involvement in a prostitution investigation.

Thinking that his niece had been kidnapped, DeRossett responded to the unknown threat by getting a weapon of his own and firing at the officer. A 40-round standoff between police and the homeowner followed. DeRossett eventually surrendered once more police officers showed up at his home and identified themselves.

Though he shot one of the arresting officers in the abdomen during the exchange, DeRossett was acquitted of first-degree attempted murder last April after arguing that he couldn’t easily identify the plainclothes officer as law enforcement and thus, had a right to defend himself and his family. 

“If you're getting pulled over and the police come up to you in their police uniform, their badge, and their gun, then you have a reasonable understanding as to what’s going on,” Cahill said. “If you have a person that you have no idea if they're a police officer or if they're just a random person on the street or a drug dealer or whatever, and then you act based on your knowledge at the time, it definitely changes the circumstances.”

But examples of people successfully finding justifiable reasons to use self-defense against a cop are few and far in between. That’s part of the reason why Cameron Cofield, an instructor at the Black-owned self-defense and firearm training facility Certified Safety Instruction in Columbus, tells his students to consider any and all other options before using force against the police.

“I would never tell people to harm anybody in law enforcement,” Cofield said. “I typically tell my students to comply to the best of their ability. Ask the officer they’re interacting with to call their sergeant. Because the more visibility there is, the more accountability hopefully will be shared, and officers will act more by the book.”

But in the rare occasions where compliance isn’t an option, Cofield said only the most obvious evidence will help your case.

“The only way I see someone using self-defense against law enforcement and winning is if you have witnesses, you have cameras, you have everything out there in your favor, to warrant that,” he said.

Cofield also recommended that if that kind of situation arises, people should take the same route in self-defense that he’d teach students to take against a civilian.

“I would never say take life,” he told VICE News. “That’s not the name of the game I’m teaching. It’s to stop the threat and to protect yourself so you can go home, which is the mindset of every police officer out there—to go home safe that night.”