Were they a threat? Police shootings reignite legal debate

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Protesters prepare to march against the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

In the span of 48 hours, two Black men in U.S. cities hundreds of miles apart were shot by police in episodes that set off a national conversation about the need for officers to open fire on people walking away from them.

The Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the killing of Trayford Pellerin in Lafayette, Louisiana, two days earlier have thrust into the spotlight a thorny and long-running legal issue that has on several occasions gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the Blake shooting has raised a host of other questions, including why the officer felt the need to shoot him seven times in the back at close range, and the prudence of police opening fire with children nearby.

Wisconsin authorities are investigating those questions as they weigh charges against the officer in a case that has reignited national protests over racial injustice. The shootings come less than three months after almost daily clashes between police and protesters in response to the death of George Floyd after a Minnesota officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.

Laws governing the use of deadly force differ from state to state, and past shootings of people who were fleeing from officers have played out differently across the country.

An Atlanta officer was charged with felony murder in June in the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks, who authorities said had taken an officer's stun gun and was 18 feet away when the officer shot him from behind.

Prosecutors in South Carolina agreed to drop murder charges against former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager as part of a plea deal in the 2015 fatal shooting of unarmed Walter Scott. Slager, who shot the fleeing man five times in the back, is serving a 20-year federal sentence after pleading guilty to a civil rights violation.

And in Pennsylvania, a prosecutor in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County said shooting a suspect in the back was unacceptable when he charged a former officer after he fatally shot 17-year-old Antwon Rose as he fled a 2018 traffic stop. But a jury declined to convict the officer, who said he thought he saw a gun.

“Even if it appears to be horrific, it doesn’t mean that there is a law that they have violated,” said Raleigh Blasdell, a criminologist and professor at North Central College in Illinois.