A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling defends police officers who are caught in a crisis leading to the use of lethal force.
The nation’s top court has again stepped into the bitter public turmoil over police shootings of armed combatants. They ruled Monday that an Arizona police officer is shielded from being sued for using lethal force against a non-compliant woman armed with a knife in her own front yard.
The court said the officer acted reasonably, given that the woman, Amy Hughes, was carrying a large kitchen knife, that she was standing within striking distance of a woman who the officer did not know was Hughes’ roommate, and that Hughes failed to drop the knife when ordered to do so, reported NPR.
Police were called to the scene after a 911 call reported a woman hacking at a tree with a knife. Hughes fit the description of the woman. So when police spotted her with the knife in her hand, and within striking distance of another woman, all three officers on the scene drew their weapons.
The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the vision of 20/20 hindsight.
– SCOTUS Majority Opinion
One Officer Opened Fire
They said Hughes appeared calm. Nevertheless, she failed to acknowledge the officers’ presence or their twice-repeated order to drop the knife. As a result, one of the three officers opened fire.
Hughes, who sued for $150,000 in damages, is one of thousands of people shot by police who survive.
What Statistics Are Being Used?
There are so few reliable statistics about police shootings, however, that in 2015 then FBI director James Comey called the situation “embarrassing and ridiculous.”
The Washington Post has compiled what many believe to be the most complete database on fatal police shootings. According to their figures, there were 995 fatal shootings, in 2016, 963, and in 2017, 987. In each of these years, roughly one in ten of the fatal shootings involved a person who was unarmed or not known to have had a weapon.
The Number of Non-Fatal Shootings Are Unknown
As to those who survive police shootings, again, there is no official count by any government agency, according to NPR.
VICE News has done a data analysis of the nation’s 47 largest police departments. Although the data is not comprehensive, it covers 148,000 police officers in 47 police departments that serve 54 million people. According to NPR, it is the best count to date of those who were wounded by law enforcement during a critical incident.
According to the data, 2,720 people were shot by police and survived from 2010-2016. Of these, 20 percent were unarmed, and in an additional 8 percent of the cases, the departments didn’t say whether the subject was unarmed.
But these numbers can be skewed since we know a vehicle can be used effectively as a weapon, yet a driver doing so is considered “unarmed” in these tabulations. Moreover, defendants capable of bashing an officer’s head against the street or sidewalk are also considered “unarmed.” So strictly looking at numbers out of context does not bring these actions into focus.
SCOTUS Did Not Require Full Briefing
Nevertheless, about half the shootings took place when police encountered a subject with a gun, and another 20 percent involved subjects with a knife or some other weapon — subjects like Amy Hughes, the woman whose lawsuit was tossed out by the Supreme Court on Monday.
The court’s decision came without ordering full briefing or argument. This is a rare step by SCOTUS indicating the majority thought the case easy to decide.
The unsigned, eight-page opinion said that under clearly established law, “the reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the vision of 20/20 hindsight,” and the court reiterated that the “calculus of reasonableness” must allow for “the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving….”
Furthermore, even if the shooting in the Hughes case did amount to excessive force, “a proposition that is not at all evident on these facts,” the court said, the officer who shot Hughes would still not be liable. Under the court’s “qualified immunity” doctrine, said the court majority, the officer would be immune from any lawsuit because his conduct did not violate “any clearly established statutory or constitutional right” that “a reasonable person could have known” about.
Sotomayor and Ginsburg Dissent
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for herself and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, strenuously dissented. Noting that two of the three officers on the scene thought it “unnecessary to use deadly force,” the dissenters observed that Hughes was “nowhere near the officers, had committed no illegal act, was suspected of no crime, and did not raise the knife in the direction of the other woman or anyone else.”
This is not the kind of case that the Supreme Court normally disposes of without briefing or argument, contended Sotomayor. “The relevant facts are hotly disputed” and the question of immunity in these circumstances is, “at the very best, a close call.” Yet, instead of letting the case go to a jury, the court has “intervened prematurely, purporting to correct an error that is not at all clear.”
The court’s “unwarranted” overturning of the lower court’s decision in this case, she said, is “symptomatic” of a “disturbing” and “one-sided” approach to excessive force cases, where police are almost always protected, and the victims of excessive force have little to no recourse.
In the hands of the current court, she charged, the doctrine of limited immunity for police is being transformed into “an absolute shield for law enforcement officers.”
Scolding the Court’s Majority
The court, she concluded, is not only “wrong on the law,” it is sending “an alarming signal” to police and the public alike. It tells police they “can shoot first and think later,” and it tells the public that, “palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”