The dramatic and welcome end of the flight of two vicious killers over the weekend shouldn’t stop us from asking an honest question about the use of police force in the encounter that stopped David Sweat’s run from justice.
Sweat, who before he escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility was doing a life term for shooting a sheriff’s deputy multiple times and running him over with a car while he was still alive, was apprehended Sunday a few miles south of the Canadian border. A state police sergeant saw him jogging and asked to speak with him. Sweat took off running, the trooper gave chase and, as Sweat was about to disappear into the forest, the trooper fired twice, hitting Sweat “in the torso,” according to published reports. Sweat was unarmed.
It’s unclear exactly where Sweat was hit. Most media accounts have avoided saying that Sweat was shot in the back, although photos suggest that’s where the bullets struck him. A spokesman for Albany Medical Center, where Sweat is being treated, refused to specify the location of his injuries, citing privacy laws.
In New York City, such a shooting might have been verboten. The NYPD patrol guide states that “police officers shall not discharge their firearms to subdue a fleeing felon who presents no threat of imminent death or serious physical injury to themselves or another person present.”
But state law appears to provide officers with more latitude.
Section 35.30 of the state penal code says that a police officer “in the course of effecting or attempting to effect an arrest, or of preventing or attempting to prevent the escape from custody, of a person whom he or she reasonably believes to have committed an offense, may use physical force when and to the extent he or she reasonably believes such to be necessary to effect the arrest, or to prevent the escape from custody … except that deadly physical force may be used for such purposes” under specific conditions.
One of them is when “the offense committed” by the fleeing person is “a felony … involving the use or attempted use or threatened imminent use of physical force against a person” which Sweat’s original crime was. Deadly force is also permitted when the person has committed “kidnapping, arson, escape in the first degree, burglary in the first degree or any attempt to commit such a crime.” Escape in the first degree is what Sweat apparently committed when he broke out of prison.