On the morning of July 20, 2020, rookie Cleveland Police Officer Bailey Gannon shot his partner. Screaming as he fled in panic down a flight of stairs from a man who was neither chasing nor threatening him, Gannon pointed his gun over his head—in the opposite direction he was running— and began firing blindly behind him. One of his bullets hit his partner, whom he had just run right past.
That was the opening paragraph in a federal civil rights lawsuit just filed by Cleveland police officer, Jennifer Kilnapp, against her former partner, as well as the City of Cleveland. So this is a police shooting case – an excessive force case – from one cop against another cop. Can a police officer, who is unintentionally shot by another police officer, sue the government for a civil rights violation? Unfortunately, I can answer that one. But first, here’s a portion of the body cam footage.
The bullet that struck Officer Jennifer Kilnapp ended up lodging in her spine. Investigators almost immediately concluded that it was probably Officer Gannon who had shot his partner. Despite that knowledge, the Cleveland Division of Police and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office instead charged the suspect, Darryl Borden, with attempted murder, falsely claiming that he shot Kilnapp. These charges would be quietly dropped almost a year later. He still went to prison though. More on that in a minute.
Investigators determined that Officer Gannon lied about the shooting. Despite this, he received no discipline for lying, much less for shooting his partner. Unbelievably, three months after the shooting, the City rated Officer Gannon’s overall performance as “exceeding expectations,” referring to shooting his partner as merely a “minor setback.” This probably has nothing to do with the fact that Gannon’s father is a sergeant with the Cleveland Division of Police. Remember, Officer Gannon was a rookie cop. He entered field patrol as an officer in January of 2020. He shot his partner on July 20, 2020. Before the first year was even out, he was “exceeding expectations.”
In the early hours of July 20, 2020, Kilnapp and Gannon responded to a call on the east side of Cleveland alleging there was an emotionally disturbed man with a gun on the second floor of the boarding home he was staying in. There had been no report of the man shooting at anyone or otherwise being physically violent. Now this is according to the allegations in the lawsuit. The information released publicly at the time by the prosecutor’s office, was that the man had shot through the floor at the 911 caller prior to the law enforcement arrival. Perhaps that was false, which wouldn’t be surprising given everything else we now know about this story.
After learning the man, Darryl Borden, was in a second-floor bathroom, the two officers went upstairs to the hallway. Gannon then took the lead and stood offset from the bathroom door with Kilnapp in a position a few feet behind him. The staircase was between Gannon and Kilnapp. Gannon did not knock and announce their presence as police officers. Gannon did not ask Borden to come out of the bathroom. Still in the bathroom, Borden made no threatening statements to the officers, or in their presence. The lawsuit alleges that, rather than taking other steps, such as deescalation, withdrawing and establishing a perimeter, attempting surveillance of the bathroom, waiting for Borden to come out, or calling for backup or other assistance, Gannon instead decided to open the bathroom door.
According to the lawsuit’s allegations, when Gannon opened the door, Borden was standing there, apparently holding a firearm pointed downwards, at his side in one hand. Borden took no steps towards Gannon, nor made any other threatening gestures or statements. Gannon did not order Borden to drop his weapon. He didn’t order him to do anything. Instead, he panicked, spun back out of the doorway, out of sight of Borden. Borden still took no action.
Officer Gannon then ran away, towards the stairs. Borden didn’t follow him, or even flee, but rather stayed in the bathroom. Officer Kilnapp, Borden’s partner, was standing near the top of the stairs. Gannon bolted down the stairs, screaming as he fled. As he ran, Gannon pointed his gun over his head behind him, in the opposite direction as he was running, and began shooting blindly behind him. One of these bullets hit Kilnapp as she stood near the top of the stairs. Gannon’s body camera footage shows him running away while Kilnapp yells after him, “I’m shot. I’m shot. Don’t leave me.”
EMS rushed Officer Kilnapp to the hospital. Two weeks later, surgeons were able to remove the bullet fragment near her spine. Kilnapp filed the lawsuit on July 13, 2022, which discloses that Gannon never apologized to his partner for shooting her.
The investigation team created several diagrams showing the bullet trajectory that injured Kilnapp. This diagram is an overhead view of the staircase, hallway and bathroom. This shows that one of Gannon’s bullets, marked by a yellow line, was fired through the bathroom wall near the top of the staircase on a slight downward angle, meaning that he must have been holding his gun above his head when he fired, as he was running away.
This diagram shows Officer Kilnapp’s approximate vantage point when Gannon began shooting, as well as the path of Borden’s bullets when he reacted to Gannon opening fire. This shows the investigators’ conclusion that no bullets fired by Borden traveled in the direction of Officer Kilnapp.
Gannon initially claimed to investigators that when he opened the door, Borden was holding a gun in two hands and pointing it at the door. The lawsuit alleges that Gannon’s body cam footage shows his claim to be a lie, and that instead, it records Gannon admitting that he might have shot his partner. The investigation also revealed that Borden didn’t fire any shots until after Gannon began running down the staircase and shooting towards the bathroom.
Actually, if you look at a still-shot of the moment the body cam footage shows the bathroom door open, you can see that Borden’s left arm is pointed away from Gannon. Therefore it was clearly false to claim that both of Borden’s hands were pointed towards the door. To be honest though, I can’t make out what’s going on with the rest of Borden’s body.
Despite having evidence that it was Gannon who shot Kilnapp, a July 31, 2020 press release from the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office claimed that Borden “fired multiple shots at officers striking Officer Kilnapp.” Those charges would be dismissed around a year later.
So, what ended up happening to Mr. Borden? He was given a seven to ten year prison term by a Cuyahoga County judge for attempted felonious assault of a police officer and using a gun in the crime. In September of 2021, a federal judge tacked on another five years of incarceration for federal firearms related charges, as he was a felon in possession of a firearm in the first place.
Ironically, in March of 2021, the CDP suspended Officer Kilnapp for her involvement in the incident, on the grounds that she forgot to turn on her body camera before entering the house on the night of the shooting. To the contrary, the CDP took no disciplinary action against Gannon for shooting blindly through a wall while running away from a suspect and shooting his partner in the process.
Let’s take a look at the complaint’s legal theories. Here’s the full complaint:
The lawsuit alleges a direct excessive force Fourth Amendment violation by Officer Gannon, as well as supervisory and municipal violations by the City of Cleveland, alleging the existence of an unconstitutional policy of excessive force and training.
A similar incident actually happened in West Virginia back in 2009, and I was involved in some of the litigation. It was a tragic case. There was a vehicle pursuit that ended in multiple police officers surrounding the suspect’s vehicle, with the suspect still at the wheel. Several officers began firing at the driver. One of the bullets ended up hitting and killing a Charleston Police Department officer accidentally – or rather negligently. The officer’s widow sued, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Why?
“The Fourth Amendment protects ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’…” “In order to be ‘seized’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, one must have been the intended object of physical restraint by a state actor.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that, “‘the Fourth Amendment’s specific protection against unreasonable seizures of the person does not, by definition, extend to unintentionally injured ‘bystanders.” (Brower v. County of Inyo 1989; see also Rucker v. Hartford County 4th Cir. 1991). In the Charleston Police Department case, which was Jones v. City of Charleston, from 2012, the Court held that since the colleague police officer wasn’t intentionally shot by the police officer who had fired at a suspect, that no Fourth Amendment seizure could occur. In other words, even a negligent use of a firearm by a police officer can fall short of being legally considered excessive force, assuming the victim was unintentionally shot by the police officer.
As the Judge in that case wrote in the opinion:
Whether it was appropriate for Officer Burford to discharge his weapon without accounting for the location of a fellow officer, and whether his actions in doing so may have been negligent or even reckless are questions that are not before the court. The plaintiff has only alleged violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Because it is undisputed that Officer Burford did not intend to shoot Officer Jones, the Fourth Amendment is not implicated.
Now there could be other theories of potential liability, which is probably the best hope for Officer Kilnapp in this case, as the Judge alluded to in the Jones case. There could be state law claims based on a negligence or recklessness standard. However, it doesn’t appear that any were alleged in the lawsuit. There may be some meat to the argument that Officer Gannon’s actions that day were attributable to training and supervisory issues. It would be probably be a stretch to attribute it to the CPD’s overall use of force policy issues, since Gannon obviously wasn’t following any sane policy if he was running away, shooting blindly behind him through a solid wall.
Sadly, unless the case settles, I don’t see a realistic path to liability. But I hope I’m wrong, because there should be accountability for someone being wrongfully shot by another individual, police officer or not.