SCOTUS Ruling in Favor of Immunity Spells Trouble for Police Accountability

On Monday, April 2, the Supreme Court issued an unsigned per curiam opinion, ruling in favor of a police officer who in 2010 shot a woman four times. (A per curiam opinion is unsigned and written for the court as a whole by an unidentified justice.) Amy Hughes survived the ordeal and sued University of Arizona police officer Andrew Kisela. The case was thrown out, but in 2016 a panel of three Ninth Circuit judges ruled that Hughes should have the right to have her claim of excessive force by police heard by a jury. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court.

According to court records, three University of Arizona officers responded to an off-campus report of a woman hacking a tree with a knife. When they arrived, they saw Amy Hughes emerge from her house carrying a large kitchen knife. When Hughes began to walk toward her roommate, Sharon Chadwick, police yelled for Hughes to drop the knife.

Chadwick later submitted an affidavit saying Hughes was composed and not threatening. In talking with police afterwards, Chadwick said Hughes had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was taking medication, and that she did not understand what was happening when police yelled for her to drop the knife.

The justices, however, noted that Officer Kisela testified he shot Hughes because, although she posed no danger to him and the other officers, he believed she was a threat to Chadwick.

“Kisela had mere seconds to assess the potential danger to Chadwick,” reads the unsigned SCOTUS opinion. “He was confronted with a woman who had just been seen hacking a tree with a large kitchen knife and whose behavior was erratic enough to cause a concerned bystander to call 911 and then flag down Kisela and (Alex) Garcia.”

The other two officers reported that Kisela was separated from the woman by a chain-link fence, that Hughes had moved to within a few feet of Chadwick, and that she had failed to acknowledge at least two commands to drop the knife.

“This is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment,” the opinion states.

Customarily, the per curiam opinion has been used to indicate that a case is uncontroversial, evident, and doesn’t require a substantial and signed opinion. It’s hard to reason that a Supreme Court ruling about police use of force would be an obvious one. Indeed, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in a strong rebuke, saying that the case should have gone to trial where jurors would have decided what version of the evidence was true. Sotomayor contended that the decision sends the wrong signal to police. “It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”

The opinion comes at a time when reports of unarmed citizens, most often black men, being shot and often killed by police seem never ending. It was just a few weeks ago that Stephon Clark was shot eight times in Sacramento, California, in his grandmother’s backyard after police allegedly misidentified Clark’s cellphone as a handgun. The autopsy revealed the majority of these shots entered through his back.

The current perception of police disregard for human life needs to be addressed. At this juncture, the Supreme Court has declined to upset the status quo in terms of immunity for police officers. Police should have the skills and cultural competence to protect and serve all communities, including people of color and the mentally ill, without killing people. Police uphold this duty in many other developed countries with little incident, but here we woefully neglect a growing human rights issue.