Seattle is first major city to legislate a police shooting policy on May 1, 1978.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 5/19/2000
  • Essay 2433

On May 1, 1978, the Seattle City Council legislates the use of deadly force by police officers, the first major U.S. city to do so. The ordinance limits the use of firearms to self defense, to the arrest of persons who have actually committed dangerous crimes, and to the apprehension of arrested felons who have escaped. Officers are expected to exhaust alternatives to deadly force or be convinced that anything other than deadly force would be ineffective.

The ordinance was a campaign promise by Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) to voters concerned about police shootings of unarmed auto thieves and burglars, some of whom were juveniles. State law, dating from the nineteenth century, permitted the use of deadly force by "peace officers" to arrest a person suspected of committing any felony.

From March 1972 to May 1975, Seattle police discharged their firearms in 60 incidents, with 25 suspects hit, five fatally. One police officer died in these encounters. Of the 60 suspects, 34 (57 percent) were non-white and 28 (47 percent) were unarmed. Of the 28 unarmed suspects, 64 percent were non-white.

Mayor Royer proposed a policy of shooting only in self defense. The Seattle Police Officers Guild advocated a looser, any-felony approach. The council action was a compromise, allowing the use of deadly force to arrest someone known to have committed an inherently dangerous felony such as murder, rape, armed robbery, and bombing.

City Councilman Randy Revelle predicted "a probable reduction of shooting incidents among juveniles; elimination of the use of firearms against persons involved only in crimes against property; and a reduction in the chances of an innocent person being injured or killed."

Seattle Police Officers Guild President Bob Moffett disagreed saying, "Unless the police officer is allowed to use all of the means entrusted him and her under state law, the day of the criminal will arrive in Seattle and the crime rate will rise until our homes and streets are no longer safe at any time of the day or night." An effort by the police union to overturn the ordinance by initiative failed.

According to statistics provided to the Seattle City Council, 41 percent of the persons shot by police were unarmed.

The new policy was consistent with the accepted practice of most officers.


Ted Dracos, "When Should Cops Kill?," The Weekly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (April 5, 1978), pp. 10-14; Bob Moffett, Randy Revelle and Walt Crowley, "View/Counterview: The Gun Controversy," View of Puget Sound, Vol. 1, No. 2., (October 1978), pp. 42-43; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 2, 1978, A-14; The Seattle Times, May 2, 1978, A-14; Jim Tweedie, Pat Scanlan, "The Use of Deadly Force in Seattle: When Is It Justified?" Typescript report to the Seattle City Council from the American Civil Liberties Union, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library, n.d. (ca. 1975), p. 8; City of Seattle, Office of Policy Planning, Law and Justice Planning Office, "Policy Development Report on Use of Deadly Force by Seattle Police," typescript dated November 1976, pp. 28-30, Seattle Public Library, Downtown Branch.

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