A recent ruling by the Supreme Court earlier this month should have opponents of police brutality worried.
The Supreme Court overturned a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that Amy Hughes, an Arizona woman who was shot and severely injured by a police officer in 2010, can sue the officer.
The Supreme Court held that the officer is protected from Hughes’ lawsuit by “qualified immunity,” which says government officials can only be sued for violating a plaintiff’s statutory or constitutional right when that right is clearly established and would be understood by any reasonable public official.
Essentially, the Supreme Court says Officer Andrew Kisela either did not violate Amy Hughes’ Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force or cannot be expected to have known he was doing so.
That claim is not supported by the facts of the case, as was eloquently demonstrated in a dissenting opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
On the date of the incident, Tucson police received a 911 call about a woman, Amy Hughes, behaving erratically and chopping away at a tree with a kitchen knife. Three officers, including Kisela, responded to the house of Hughes and her roommate Sharon Chadwick.
Hughes emerged from the house and began a conversation with Chadwick during which she was holding the kitchen knife down at her side. Hughes and Chadwick were separated from the officers by a chain-link fence.
Chadwick later testified Hughes “never acted in a threatening manner.” Hughes remained six feet away from Chadwick throughout the encounter.
Officers commanded Hughes to drop the knife, although evidence suggests Hughes may not have heard or registered those commands.
When she continued holding the knife, Kisela, and only Kisela, decided to resort to potentially lethal force by shooting at Hughes four times.
Hughes dropped to the ground and asked, “Why’d you shoot me?”
Less than one minute transpired between the time when the officers saw Chadwick and the time when Kisela fired shots.
Justice Sotomayor’s dissent stated that she believes Hughes committed no serious crime, Hughes never threatened the officers, and neither of the other officers at the scene felt the need to resort to potentially deadly force at the time.
The problem with the majority’s ruling is that it prevents police officers from being held accountable for injuring and killing civilians when it is totally unnecessary to do so.
Both prongs of the majority’s argument are faulty. It is not only manifestly clear that Kisela violated Hughes’ rights by shooting her when neither the officers nor Chadwick were in serious danger. It is also clear that Kisela should be expected to have known he was doing so.
Police officers are all too often treated as infallible. Judges and juries give them latitude to use deadly force anytime they feel threatened, regardless of whether they had any objective reason to feel that way.
This decision further institutionalizes the leniency into American law.
Police have a dangerous job, but we cannot take their subjective emotional reactions to a situation as justification for actions so drastic as ending someone’s life or severely injuring someone.
This is especially concerning in light of how bias affects the use of force by police. The Washington Post’s police shooting database shows black people and people with mental illness are more likely than others to be shot by police.
The Supreme Court is stretching out this notion of qualified immunity in police officers’ favor. Not expecting police to know citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights is keeping our expectations far too low.