It’s official. Black Lives Don’t Matter—and neither do white or brown ones, male or female, if a policeman feels threatened, is rattled by the circumstances, doesn’t like the response he’s getting, or mistakes a cellphone for a Glock 17. There’s an epidemic of that.
In a ruling Monday, a majority of the Supreme Court, in a review of what by all appearances is one of the least justified shootings imaginable, held that law enforcement is almost always right. In Kisela v. Hughes, police in Tucson, Arizona, responded to a call that a woman was hacking at a tree with a knife. When they arrived, Amy Hughes came outdoors holding a kitchen knife at her side. Hughes didn’t respond immediately to requests to drop it. Two officers held back but one saw that as reason to shoot, hitting her four times and leaving her gravely wounded. She survived and sued.
In an unsigned opinion, the court rejected Hughes’ claim of excessive force, saying officers are entitled to immunity unless previous cases clearly tell them a specific use of force is unlawful. True enough, there may not be a previous case where the life of a tree was at stake. But here, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a blistering dissent, found that no one’s life was at stake: Hughes did not raise the knife in the direction of the police, or her roommate. She wasn’t behaving erratically or verbally threatening anyone. The ruling, Sotomayor wrote, shows an “unflinching willingness” to intervene prematurely to wrongly grant immunity.
The decision Sotomayor labeled as “shoot first and ask questions later” comes as police killings are roiling the country. In many cases, victims are unarmed African Americans. With body cameras widely required, it’s no longer just the word of witnesses and families against the police, but the police against what your eyes can see. Watching a black man, Eric Garner, choked to death, gasping “I can’t breathe,” for selling bootleg cigarettes concentrates the mind.
There are two cases in the news this week that would get a pass from five justices. After two years, a video of the killing of Alton Sterling outside a convenience store where he sold CDs in 2016 was finally released. Within 10 seconds of arriving to help a colleague who’d gotten a call about someone with a gun, officer Blane Salamoni went into a profane tirade against Alton Sterling, who was packing up his CDs to go home and who didn’t respond to his command to put his hands on the car.
In less than a minute, Salamoni fired and killed Sterling. Upon seeing the video for the first time last week, Sterling family attorney Michael Adams said it proves the victim “was not some wild, deranged, cocaine-filled, high, big black man who was out of control. The person who was out of control was Blane Salamoni.”
After the video, Salamoni was dismissed and the other officer was put on leave for three days. But Salamoni will not be charged criminally, as the state attorney general said he did not find sufficient evidence to prosecute.
The latest tragedy to befall an unarmed black man happened on March 18 in Sacramento where police opened fire on Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old with a fiancé, two little children, and a grandmother whose backyard he was killed in. Two officers, dispatched to investigate a report that someone was breaking car windows with a crowbar, saw Clark running, one officer shouted “gun,” and quickly let loose with 20 rounds of bullets, eight of which hit Clark.
The gun turned out to be a cellphone. The recording that can be deciphered revealed Clark showed his hands as asked, and an independent autopsy released this week showed that six of the shots hit Clark in the back. We may never know everything. In the midst of the mayhem, the two officers muted the audio on their body cams as they discussed what had happened with each other.
What does seem obvious is that the initial account by the police department that Clark had “advanced” on them with a firearm is not true. Alive for three to 10 minutes after the barrage of fire, Clark was left to die as the officers did not move to help him. Since then, protesters have taken to the streets, blocking the entrance to Sacramento Kings games twice. The California attorney general is investigating, one city councilman believes the shooting is suspicious, but as of this writing the officers had not been relieved of duty.
Sterling and Clark join a too-long list of fatal shootings and deaths in police custody: Trayvon Martin holding Skittles and an iced tea by a neighborhood watch guard; Michael Brown; Freddie Gray hurled senseless in the back of a van; Walter Scott whose wife begged for his life; Sandra Bland stopped for a broken car light; 12-year-old Tamir Rice holding a toy gun; and many more.
While outrage has spread beyond the black community, it hasn’t reached the Supreme Court, which has now enshrined a doctrine that the police must always be given the benefit of the doubt. Under this logic, a cop can shoot an old lady with a cane as long as he swears he thought it was a gun. The Supreme Court will have his back.