Even when it’s beyond dispute that a police officer had no choice but to defend himself from deadly force, someone will question why. Why did they have to shoot that many times? The Supreme Court has now given a conclusive answer to the question: Because they can.
Donald Rickard led police officers on a high-speed car chase that came to a temporary halt when Rickard spun out into a parking lot. Rickard resumed maneuvering his car, and as he continued to use the accelerator even though his bumper was flush against a patrol car, an officer fired three shots into Rickard’s car. Rickard managed to drive away, almost hitting an officer in the process. Officers fired 12 more shots as Rickard sped away, striking him and his passenger, both of whom died from some combination of gunshot wounds and injuries suffered when the car eventually crashed.
While the question of the wisdom of firing “12 more shots” at a car speeding away from police might be the subject of debate among thoughtful people, the Court was untroubled by the choice. The opinion, written by Justice Sam Alito, begins with the standard caveat:
We analyze this question from the perspective “of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” We thus “allo[w] for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
These words serve as the apologia of all manner of stupid, because split-second judgments. It’s not as if police are trained or anything, and we can’t expect them to exercise sound judgment when using deadly force. It’s very hard to be a cop, you know.
The Court fell back on Scott v. Harris, where it refused to expect police to use force with intelligence and instead deferred to the cop’s preference to shoot rather than the safety of innocent bystanders who would be harmed as a result. Taking Scott a baby step further, Alito noted in footnote 3:
The District Court held that the danger presented by a high-speed chase cannot justify the use of deadly force because that danger was caused by the officers’ decision to continue the chase. In Scott, however, we declined to “lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people’s lives in danger,” concluding that the Constitution “assuredly does not impose this invitation to impunity earned-by-recklessness.”
The rule thus went from one of mere deference to stupidity to an entitlement to shoot at fleeing motorists.
But the question remained, is there any end to the force that can be used, any limits to the trigger finger of the adrenalin-fueled officer in fear of his life from the fleeing motorist? Ten bullets? Twenty? A million?
Here, during the 10-second span when all the shots were fired, Rickard never abandoned his attempt to flee. Indeed, even after all the shots had been fired, he managed to drive away and to continue driving until he crashed.This would be a different case if petitioners had initiated a second round of shots after an initial round had clearly incapacitated Rickard and had ended any threat of continued flight, or if Rickard had clearly given himself up. But that is not what happened.
In other words, whatever happened to Rickard was his own fault, and so the consequences of his failure to “abandon his attempt to flee” cannot be blamed on the cops.
It stands to reason that, if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended. As petitioners noted below, “if lethal force is justified, officers are taught to keep shooting until the threat is over.”
This point, in which Justices Breyer and Ginsburg refused to join, is phrased somewhat euphemistically. Lest there be any confusion, Alito is saying that if the officers are entitled to shoot at all, they can shoot until their target is dead and/or they run out of bullets. Their only constraint is the number of bullets in their magazine.
NYPD cops fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, Cleveland police fired 137 bullets at Malissa Williams. NYPD (again) fired 50 bullets at Sean Bell. Miami police fired 377 bullets at Adrian Montesano. Get over it. They’re allowed. The Supreme Court says so.