Why’d You Shoot Me?

I don’t usually write about police shootings, but a decision by the United States Supreme Court on April 2nd, 2018 caught my attention because of current investigations and mass protests.

In the case decided by the Supreme Court, 3 police officers were called to a home in Tucson, Arizona. The call said a woman was acting erratically by hacking a tree with a knife. When the officers arrived, they found an unarmed woman named Chadwick in the driveway of a home. A second woman named Hughes walked out of the house holding a kitchen knife and stopped within six feet of Chadwick. As it turns out, the two women were roommates in the house. The officers drew their guns and ordered Hughes to drop her knife. It is not clear that Hughes heard the command, but when she didn’t drop her knife, one of the officers shot her 4 times. Miraculously, she didn’t die, although the intent to kill her seems plain enough based on shooting her 4 times. Screaming and bleeding, Hughes asked, “Why’d you shoot me?” That is a fair question.

Hughes sued for the use of excessive deadly force.

According to the testimony, Hughes was not moving, spoke calmly, held the knife at her side and made no aggressive movements.

The Supreme Court ruled that the police officer had “qualified immunity” and was not liable. The Court’s decision was unsigned and issued without full briefing and oral argument. In other words, as far as the Supreme Court was concerned, it was a slam dunk for the police. It was so clear that Hughes won’t even receive a jury trial. The Court didn’t overtly say the officer had a right to shoot Ms. Hughes, but it may as well have said it.

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, vigorously dissented. Justice Sotomayor said that because the officer “lacked any legitimate interest justifying the use of deadly force against a woman who posed no objective threat of harm to officers or others, had committed no crime, and appeared calm and collected during the police encounter, he was not entitled to qualified immunity”. Justice Sotomayor said the decision transforms “qualified immunity” into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers. She concluded by saying: “Because there is nothing right or just under the law about this, I respectfully dissent.”

This Supreme Court decision indicates that virtually any excuse will be sufficient to justify a police shooting. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that the current protests will achieve anything beyond forcing local law enforcement agencies to reexamine their policies and training. However, some lawmakers in California intend to propose a state law that allows police officers to use deadly force only if there is no reasonable alternative. This means police officers will be obligated to use no more force than necessary. This proposal is opposed by law enforcement agencies.

Photo Credit:  JacquesTiberi