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7th Circuit Explains Justified Police Shootings of Suicidal People

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The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has decided appeals in two consolidated cases involving the police shootings of men threatening suicide. The three-judge panel ruled on the reasonableness of force under the Fourth Amendment and found that officers in one case did not use excessive force and were subject to qualified immunity, while officers in the other case did not.

The element that made all the difference in the outcome of the cases was whether or not the police began by using deadly force.

Officers entitled to qualified immunity

After losing a summary judgment motion, the family of Bill Williams appealed a lower court judgment that the officers involved in his shooting death acted objectively reasonably and had qualified immunity.

Williams had sent a text to his sons indicating that he was going to commit suicide.  When the sons arrived, they found him locked inside a bathroom. Williams made threats that anyone who entered the bathroom, including his sons, would be killed.

Officers attempted to look into the bathroom window from the outside, observing blood.  At that time, an officer spoke with Williams through the door. The officer alleged that Williams threatened to stab anyone who opened the door. Williams Mother showed officers how to “pop” the lock with a tip of a Q-Tip.

When the door opened, they saw Williams standing at the sink with two knives, which he picked up as he began moving toward the doorway.  Officers fired tasers at him, which had no effect. Williams continued to follow the officers, and eventually they fired their guns at Williams, until he was killed.

Court finds threat to safety

The court in this case found that Williams’ explicit threats of harm, his possession of a weapon, and his refusal to cooperate were enough to give officers an objective belief that Williams was a threat to the safety of himself and others.

The court noted that even the family members were afraid to unlock the bathroom door “after speaking with Williams and being told that he would kill anyone who entered.”  This, the court says, showed that Williams could harm himself or others and that his threats were not “merely idle ones.”

The court ruled that the officer’s initial use of tasers was appropriate under the Fourth Amendment because Williams “potentially presented an immediate threat to himself and the officers once that [bathroom] door was opened.

After Williams failed to comply with the officers, they acted reasonably in using deadly force when Williams began brandishing the knife and resisting the tasers.

The court upheld the district court's ruling that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

Officers not entitled to qualified immunity

In the other case, another suicidal man, John Brown, had indicated to others via text that he was contemplating suicide. Brown’s mother immediately unlocked his bedroom door and checked on him, where she found him crying, bleeding from his wrists and holding a folding knife. When Brown’s mother went to call 911, Brown locked the door again.

The 911 dispatcher was informed that Brown was bipolar and refusing to take his medication and attempting suicide. The dispatcher was also informed that he had a knife, but no other weapons were in the bedroom.

See also: Ninth Circuit Reinstates $1.7M Civil Rights Damages in Cop Shooting

Two officers arrived to the home minutes apart from each other. The first officer went outside and looked through Brown’s window, observing him sitting at his desk, drinking a beer and smoking cigarette with his back to the bedroom door.

Officer Wayne Blanchard declined the Mother’s offer of the key to unlock the bedroom door, and instead Blanchard kicked the door in. Within two minutes after his arrival, Blanchard had shot and killed Brown.

Both officers stated that Brown turned toward them in a “Frankenstein-like manner” with the knife in his hand.  Brown slammed the door closed, and Blanchard kicked it down a second time and pointed a gun at Brown.  Blanchard ordered Brown to drop the knife, but when he refused and moved toward Blanchard with the knife, Blanchard fired two shots that killed Brown.

Brown’s mother testified that she did not hear Blanchard tell Brown to drop the knife, but instead heard Brown say “fine, come in and shoot me between the eyes and kill me,” and then later head the gunshots that killed Brown.

Facts disputed

The district court ruled that the differences in Brown’s Mother’s testimony and that of the officers created a genuine issue of fact to be determined by a jury.  The district court also denied the officer's motion for summary judgement on the issue of qualified immunity.

On appeal, the court discussed that Blanchard’s conduct was “unreasonable conduct that create[d] a dangerous situation.”  The court wrote that officers could not use significant force on “nonresisting or passively resisting suspects.”

They determined that because Brown’s mother was able to enter the room and engage in physical contact with him, and he did not threaten violence toward her, there was no indication that Brown posed a threat to others.  The court contrasted this case with Williams,' in that Officer Blanchard resorted to the use of deadly force as the initial action, despite that he and the other officer possessed tasers.

The court wrote that it is “clearly established, that officers cannot resort as an initial matter to lethal force on a person who is merely passively resisting and has not presented any threat of harm to others.”  The court found that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity and upheld the district court’s order denying the officers motion for summary judgment.

The case is Williams v. Indiana State Police Department, case number 14-2523 and Brown v. Blanchard and Walworth, case number 14-2808, in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

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