The U.S. Supreme Court has stepped into the realm of public criticism over police shootings of civilians.
On Monday, it ruled that an Arizona police officer is shielded from being sued for shooting a woman in her own front yard.
The court said the officer acted reasonably. The woman, Amy Hughes was carrying a large kitchen knife. She was standing within striking distance of a woman who the officer did not know was Hughes’ roommate. When ordered to drop the knife, Hughes failed to do so.
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. All three police officers on the scene drew their guns when they spotted her with the knife in her hand. She was within striking distance of another woman.
Hughes allegedly appeared calm, but after failing to acknowledge the officers’ presence or their twice repeated order to drop the knife, one of the three officers opened fire.
Hughes sued for $150,000 in damages. She is just one of the thousands of people shot by police who have survived.
The Washington Post has compiled a complete database on fatal police shootings. In 2015, they reported that there were 995 fatal shootings, in 2016, 963, and in 2017, 987. In each of these years, roughly 1 in 10 of the fatal shootings involved a person who was unarmed or not known to have had a weapon.
There is no official count by any government agency of how many people survive police shootings.
VICE News completed a data analysis of the nation’s 47 largest police departments. Although the data are not comprehensive, they cover 148,000 police officers in 47 police departments serving 54 million people. It is the best count to date of those who were shot by police and survived.
According to the data, 2,720 people were shot by police and survived from 2010-2016. Of these, 20 percent were unarmed. In an additional 8 percent of the cases, the departments didn’t say whether the subject was unarmed.
Close to half of the shootings took place when police encountered a subject with a gun. An additional 20 percent involved subjects with a knife or some other weapon.
The court’s decision came without ordering full briefing or argument, a rare step indicating that 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 …”
Even if it did not amount to excessive force, the court said, “a proposition that is not at all evident on these facts.” The court went on to say that the officer who shot Hughes would still not be liable. According to the court majority, under the court’s “qualified immunity” doctrine, 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.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for herself and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented. She noted 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.”
Sotomayor continued by saying that this is not the kind of case that the Supreme Court normally disposes of without briefing or argument. “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.”
She said that the court’s “unwarranted” overturning of the lower court’s decision, in this case, is “symptomatic” of a “disturbing” and “one-sided” approach to excessive force cases.
In the hands of the current court, she claimed, the doctrine of limited immunity for police is being transformed into “an absolute shield for law enforcement officers.”
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.”
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