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ST. LOUIS — The fact that 18-year-old Michael Brown was unarmed and possibly fleeing when a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot him does not necessarily mean the use of force was unjustified in the eyes of the law.

As federal and local authorities begin investigating the case, the key question will be whether the officer had reason to believe Brown posed a threat — gun or no gun.

The courts, out of concern for public safety and recognizing the dangers of an officer’s job, have traditionally given police a lot of latitude on that front, experts say.

“The federal courts are very clear that there are times and places where officers are allowed to shoot people in the back when they are running away, even if they are unarmed,” said David Klinger, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and expert on police shootings.

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Klinger, a former police officer, pointed to the 1985 U.S Supreme Court case Tennessee vs. Garner.

In that case, two police officers responding to a burglary encountered a fleeing suspect and shot him dead as he tried to climb over a fence. The officer who fired had no reason to believe the suspect was armed.

In a 6-3 opinion, the court held that “deadly force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and the officer had probable cause to believe that the suspect posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

While the court ruled the officer was wrong to shoot, because he was dealing with a non-violent felon, the decision set out the circumstances by which deadly force is justified: when dealing with a violent felon who could harm the officer or others, Klinger said.

Language from that case, in some variation, now appears in police manuals across the country.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said in a press conference Sunday that Brown first pushed the officer into his car and “assaulted him.” He said one shot was fired by the officer’s gun inside the car during the struggle, hitting no one, and that the officer then fired multiple times.

Klinger said that if an investigation shows the earlier struggle did occur as described, even if Brown was fleeing, it could be grounds for justifying the shooting.

Belmar has promised a thorough investigation into the shooting. Ed Magee, a spokesman for Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, said the office will be reviewing the case — as it does with all officer-involved shootings — for any potential criminal charges.

On Monday, County Executive Charlie Dooley announced that the FBI also will conduct its own investigation.

The FBI would be looking to see whether there was evidence the officer violated federal civil rights laws in his use of deadly force.

Klinger said deadly force reviews differ across the country. Prosecutors may be brought in from the start, or only at the request of the police department after its own review is finished. Some states have coroner’s inquests. He said involvement from the FBI is rarer.

Last year, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson asked the FBI to review his officers’ actions in the case of Cary Ball, 25, who was shot 21 times by police after a car chase on Sept. 27, 2012. Witness accounts had differed on whether Ball had a gun in his hand, and whether he was throwing it aside and surrendering when the shots were fired, or pointing it at officers as they said.

Both the department and the FBI cleared the officers in that case.

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