We’ve all seen the recent shooting footage out of Ohio. But that may have overshadowed another recent case where body cam footage was just released from the LAPD. Body cam footage reveals that just before officers shot an unarmed man holding an automotive part, that one of the officers said to the others, “it’s not a gun bro.” Then he was shot with no warning. Indeed, it wasn’t a gun.
Here’s the LAPD’s video:
Here’s the official account as per the LAPD:
On July 18, 2022, at around 7:20 p.m., Southwest Division patrol officers received an “Assault with a Deadly Weapon” radio call. The reporting party advised Communications Division that the suspect was armed with a black, semi-automatic handgun. Uniformed personnel observed the suspect matching the description listed in the comments of the radio call, walking on the north sidewalk of Martin Luther King Boulevard, just east of Bronson Avenue. Officers made contact with the suspect, who they believed was in possession of a handgun. The suspect refused to respond to officer’s verbal commands. As a uniformed supervisor arrived at scene, he also believed that the suspect was armed with a handgun. As the suspect walked away from the officers, he turned multiple times in their direction and pointed a black metallic object believed to be a firearm, which resulted in an Officer-Involved-Shooting (OIS). The suspect was struck by gunfire and taken into custody.
Determining whether an officer’s use of force violates the Fourth Amendment requires balancing “the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.” Tennessee v. Garner (1985).That inquiry generally involves an assessment of factors such as “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Graham v. Connor (1989).
In the context involved here, the Supreme Court has crafted a more definitive rule: An officer may use deadly force to apprehend a fleeing suspect only if “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” Garner , 471 U.S. at 11, 105 S.Ct. 1694. A suspect may pose such a threat if “there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm,” or if the suspect threatens the officer or others with a weapon capable of inflicting such harm. Id.
The key questions is whether the officer had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the suspect posed a threat of serious physical harm, either to himself or to others.
The officer who fired here, fired from behind at a suspect who was running away from the officer. Thus it would be difficult to claim that he did so out of fear for his own safety at the moment the shots were fired. Did the officer therefore have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the suspect posed an immediate threat of serious physical harm to others? The footage shows that no other individuals appear to be in immediate danger at the time the shots were fired. One police cruiser attempts to drive up and block the suspect’s path. Theoretically the officer, or officers, inside could be in harm’s way – though they also clearly were intentionally placing themselves in his path.
Perhaps the best argument for justification is what is known as the “fleeing felon rule” which arose out of Tennessee v. Garner. An officer can argue that permitting the suspect to escape posed a threat to the general public. A fleeing suspect’s escape can pose a threat to the public when police have probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a violent crime. Deadly force to prevent such an escape can be reasonable if the suspect has demonstrated that he was willing to injure an officer who got in the way of his escape or that he was willing to persist in extremely reckless behavior that threatened the lives of all those around. (Orn v. City of Tacoma, Corp. (9th Cir. 2020).
Usually this would involve a vehicle pursuit, or some type of running gun battle situation, where the suspect has already tried to seriously injure someone. Here, however, though it was reported that the suspect pointed a gun at someone, the officers did not know that to be true as of yet. They had not observed him threaten anyone with a gun. They had not positively identified the person by that point. They merely observed that he was holding something that could be a gun, and that he refused to stop and talk with them. There’s no probable cause for the officers to believe that the suspect had committed any serious crime. The suspect was not given a warning of the imminent use of deadly force by the officers, which has been required by the 9th Circuit in prior cases.
To the contrary, here, the officers themselves were unsure of whether they many even had a gun. As we heard on the body cam footage, one of the officers said, “that’s not a gun bro.” And it wasn’t. At the end of the day, there is sufficient evidence here to deny qualified immunity and take the officer before a civil jury on an excessive force claim. The jury can decide whether the officer’s claims, whatever they end up being, are objectively reasonable.