Video of Cop Shooting at Teen Sparks Questions of What Can an Off-Duty Cop Really Do?

February 23rd 2017

Mike Rothschild

On Tuesday, an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer had a confrontation with a group of teenagers, which ended in the cop's gun firing and videos published online of the incident.

Now, people on social media are questioning the limits of what a cop can really do when dealing with an unarmed citizen. 


Christian Dorscht was walking with his friends when they walked across the property of an off-duty cop who according to Johnny Dorscht, Christian's father, cursed at Christian's girl friend which resulted in an altercation, Fusion reports. The cop, who was dressed in plain clothes, can be heard in the video telling the 13-year-old that he heard him say, "you said you were going to shoot me," as the officer attempted to detain the teen while Dorscht responded, "I didn’t say that, I said I’m going to sue you."

What followed was an aimless scuffle that went south as several other boys appeared to rush the officer after he and the boy fell behind a bush, whereby the officer pulled his weapon and appeared in the video to fire it at Dorscht. "Anaheim Police Department disputed the accusation that the officer fired his weapon at the teen, telling Fusion that witnesses interviewed by police claim the gun was fired into the ground," Fusion reports. 

While nobody was hurt, two videos taken by bystanders quickly hit social media Wednesday, getting over 6 million views, and sparked a firestorm of controversy. By Wednesday evening, over 300 activists were marching near the officer's home, leading to a number of arrests. 

The video of the incident has sparked, again, conversation about when it's appropriate for a police officer to discharge a firearm, which has become central to the movement to rein in police violence against unarmed suspects.

Dorscht was arrested and charged with “battery and terrorist threats," according to his father. By the next day, the charges had been dropped and he was released. While the officer hasn't been formally charged, the shooting is being investigated by homicide detectives - the standard practice when an officer fires his weapon.

According to University of Pennsylvania law professor Paul Robinson, there are two separate defenses that justify deadly force by police. "One is what's called the 'law enforcement authority,'" he told Vice in July 2016. "That is, police officers are given a special right to use force that might otherwise be assault in order to make arrests. But the right to self-defense and the right to defense of others apply as well."

In the case of the video of the Anaheim incident, the use of force becomes cloudy because at no time does the officer attempt to arrest the boy. He only detains him, and draws his weapon when the situation escalates into something that might cause him bodily harm.

"[I]f the person who they're arresting resists and threatens them with serious bodily injury, then they're not limited to the force that's authorized by the law enforcement authority," Robinson told Vice. "They then have the same right to self-defense that any citizen has."

Police must use the least amount of force necessary to accomplish the task at hand - and they can't use deadly force preemptively. As Robinson explains, "you can't anticipate that someone's going to attack you. You have to wait until they do, and it becomes necessary for you in time to defend yourself."

The LAPD released a statement Wednesday saying that it's conducting an investigation into the incident and the officer has been placed on administrative leave. 

While the video appears to show a confrontation needlessly escalated by a police officer who wasn't directly being attacked, Robinson cautioned Vice that videos alone aren't proof of disproportional force.

"I think the videos are good to have. But it would be ridiculous to think they give us all the answers. It's hard to really piece together what the full situation was so we can make a good reliable judgment about whether the cop's mistake is a reasonable one or not."