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Minerva Medicolegale 2009 December;129(4):233-9

language: English

Police shootings: a review of firearm deathsby law enforcement

Gill J. R.

New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner and Department of Forensic Medicine, New York University School of Medicine
New York, NY, USA


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The use of deadly force by law enforcement requires an open and thorough forensic investigation of the death. Although these deaths may be high profile, the certification is typically straight forward and the cause (i.e., gunshot wound) and manner of death (homicide) are readily apparent. One of the main duties of a forensic pathologist is the meticulous documentation of positive and pertinent-negative autopsy findings. The number, location, range of fire, internal injuries, and direction in the body of the gunshot wounds must be documented, since they may be useful in the subsequent determination of justification for the shooting. Examination of the clothing also is of paramount importance and toxicology analysis for ethanol and drugs of abuse must be performed routinely. The most common reason for the police presence is response to a crime and the most common reason for police shootings is the decedent’s use/possession of a weapon. Although the majority of these deaths are certified as homicides, the investigator always must consider the possibility of “suicide by cop”. In these, as in all deaths, the forensic pathologist is an unbiased, independent, fact-finder who provides findings and opinions that are useful for the legal inquiry. In our medico-legal system, the determination of the justifiable or culpable homicide is not the responsibility of the medical examiner.

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