April 10, 2015
Forty years ago, Tennessee state law authorized the use of deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect. The statute provided, “if, after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he either flees or forcibly resists, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest.”
On an October night in 1974, two Memphis police officers were dispatched to a reported burglary. One officer went looking for the suspect as his partner radioed back to the station. The officer observed a person running through the yard. The fleeing suspect, Edward Garner, stopped at a chain-linked fence.
The officer could see Garner’s face and hands, and admitted that Garner did not appear to be armed. Garner was small in stature and was only 15 years old. The officer ordered Garner to stop. Garner began to climb the fence and the officer shot him in the back of the head, killing him. The officer believed that had Garner made it over the fence he would have escaped.
Garner died with $10 and a purse taken from the burglarized house.
This week, the video of a South Carolina police officer shooting a black man in the back as he ran away has renewed the debate about police use of force. Michael Slager, a North Charleston police officer, said he shot 50-year-old Walter Scott in self-defense after Scott grabbed his Taser. He is facing a murder charge after a video surfaced that disputed his claim. The video depicts Scott running away, and the evidence indicates he was shot in the back.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the family of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a police officer last summer, told the USA Today, “Those who shoot and kill suspects often escape prosecution because the criminal justice system places a high value on an officer’s word and often accepts their narrative of events.”
In 1974, Edward Garner’s family sued the city of Memphis and the state of Tennessee. The case ultimately made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985.
The high court in Garner v. Tennessee held that, under the Fourth Amendment, when a law enforcement officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, the officer may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless the officer believes that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.
Justice Byron White wrote, “It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape.” He continued, “The fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect.”
White, writing for the majority in Garner, established the circumstances under which deadly force would be justified. Deadly force can be used when the officer reasonably believes that the suspect posed “a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.”
Recent deaths at the hands of the police — Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland — have brought officer involved killings into the public consciousness. Brown was unarmed when he was shot and killed by police; Garner died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer during an arrest for allegedly selling cigarettes; Rice was shot in a park while holding a pellet gun.
The first step in dealing with abuse of power is to hold the abuser accountable. In South Carolina accountability appears to be underway. Officer Slager has been fired and charged with murder. Maybe now the healing can begin and public trust restored.
Contact Matthew T. Mangino at www.mattmangino.com.
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