The FBI, responding to a nationwide surge in violent crime, has formulated a new policy that would permit agents to shoot suspects fleeing the scene of such a crime, officials said yesterday.
The new guidelines would supplant a longstanding Federal Bureau of Investigation policy that agents could use deadly force only in self-defense or to protect another individual.
The new policy would also permit FBI agents to fire "warning shots," which are banned by virtually all major city police departments.
Although the changes have been under review by the FBI for five years and were recently approved by Director William S. Sessions, it remained unclear yesterday how quickly they would take effect. An FBI official familiar with the changes said the bureau hopes to distribute them to all 9,600 agents next week.
But Attorney General Dick Thornburgh was traveling in Europe yesterday and, according to a Justice Department spokesman, has not reviewed the change.
Under the rules, agents would be permitted to shoot while purusing a suspect fleeing a violent crime or a suspect who is believed to be armed and have committed an offense in which he "attempted to cause death or bodily harm," the FBI official said. In these cases, agents will "shoot to kill" as they are trained to do when using their weapons, the official said. "We don't shoot to wound or disable."
But agents for the first time would be authorized to fire "warning shots" as a "last-minute alternative" to using deadly force when pursuing an armed suspect, the official said.
The changes have been under review since 1985, when the Supreme Court struck down a Tennessee law permitting police to use "all necessary means" to apprehend fleeing suspects and authorized use of deadly force only when there is probable cause to believe a fleeing suspect had inflicted or threatened to inflict serious physical harm. But the official also said it was prompted by the dramatic increase in drug-related violence facing law enforcement agents in recent years. This prompted the FBI last year to replace its standard-issue .38-caliber revolvers with new 10mm automatic pistols, now being tested.
Lawrence Sherman, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland and president of the Crime Control Institute, said that most city police departments permit officers to use deadly force against fleeing suspects. But, he said, they also prohibit warning shots in part because of the threat they pose to innocent bystanders. The FBI is "going much more in the direction of Wild West than most big city police departments allow," he said.