We ache again over senseless police shootings of black men. In the span of two days, two tragic police killings of black men have shaken our sense of justice. In the first, Alton Sterling was literally pinned to the ground by an officer when a second cop shot him at close range. In the other shooting, Philando Castile was the passenger in a car with an alleged broken tail lightbulb when a cop shot him for reaching for his identification, as instructed. Compounding our grief over this police abuse of power is the cowardly and tragic killing of five police officers in Dallas. As I angrily try to make sense of all this death, I feel renewed fury about a Supreme Court decision from early this term, Mullenix v. Luna, in which the Court contributes to the problem of police officers’ unnecessary use of deadly force. As Justice Sotomayor described in her lonely dissent, the Mullenix decision validates “a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing.” And, that violent approach can now add Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to its list of casualties.
As we’ve seen in far too many police shooting cases, the criminal justice system mostly ignores unwarranted police killing. Killer cops are very rarely indicted and almost never convicted. So, civil suits are extremely important because they give the victims, not prosecutors, the power to demand that the shooting officer answer for his violence in court. And that’s what the Mullinex case was about: a police officer gunned down a fleeing suspect from a rural road overpass, and the dead man’s family sued the officer for excessive force. The officer, however, claimed that he was entitled to “qualified immunity” – that no one should be allowed to sue him for his actions because he was just doing what cops do.
The Supreme Court had to decide whether a reasonable police officer, under the circumstances, would have known that gunning down a suspect from an overpass was impermissible excessive force for a police officer. In a ruling with frightening implications – implications that we see play out with each new police shooting – the Court decided that Trooper Mullenix was entitled to immunity and should not have to face a lawsuit for shooting the suspect.
Immediately before he was killed, the suspect had been driving 85 miles per hour on a mostly deserted rural road and was only a second away from having his tires punctured by law enforcement spikes set up to disable his car. He had been fleeing after officers tried to serve an arrest warrant on him revoking his misdemeanor probation. During the chase, the suspect had called police dispatchers claiming to have a gun and threatening to shoot if the officers did not back off. But the officers were well trained in using spikes to disable fleeing cars, and none expressed concern for their personal safety. Mullinex’s commanding officer expressly ordered him to hold his fire and allow the spikes to disable the car. But Mullinex ignored the order and fired six shots from the overpass. The suspect died from gunshot wounds. Mullinex bragged to his commanding officer, “How’s that for proactive?”
This case is obviously different from the high profile police shootings we keep reading about, where the suspects are doing nothing wrong except being black men (or boys) facing law enforcement. But the implications of the case are huge. The steady stream of police shootings we keep seeing is not going to stop as long as there is no accountability. And in Mullenix, the Supreme Court dramatically minimized that accountability. In a democratic society, a citizen using poor judgment or engaging in criminal conduct should not justify the police gunning him down. Rather, our courts are supposed to decide the appropriate punishment, not rogue police officers like Mullenix handing out their own justice. The Supreme Court’s decision, however, invites Dirty Harry-type law enforcement.
As Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent, Mullenix’s disregard for his superior officer’s command not to shoot and his gloating comment after the killing reveal the essence of the Supreme Court’s decision: legitimizing a “shoot first, think later” approach to policing. And with that approach, the carnage will likely continue.