A federal appeals court sent a powerful message Tuesday against deadly police force when it refused to dismiss a lawsuit from the family of a mentally ill man shot 22 times by officers and concluded: “This has to stop.”
The case was filed long before the death George Floyd in police custody prompted massive protests across the country. But the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit took notice in ruling that the officers who shot and killed Jones are not shielded from his family’s lawsuit.
“Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives,” wrote Judge Henry F. Floyd, who also detailed the killing by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
“Before the ink dried on this opinion, the FBI opened an investigation into yet another death of a black man at the hands of police, this time George Floyd in Minneapolis,” Floyd wrote. This has to stop.”
The ruling from the Richmond-based appeals court comes as Democrats in Congress have introduced a package of policing reforms, including a proposal to change immunity standards to make it easier to sue police officers. The Supreme Court is also considering whether to accept challenges to the doctrine called qualified immunity, which has protected officers from lawsuits over excessive force.
Jones was 50 and homeless when he was stopped by police in March 2013 around 11:30 p.m. for walking in the street, alongside the sidewalk. The encounter escalated quickly when Jones did not comply with Officer Paul Lehman’s order to put his hands on the police car.
There was a chase, and Jones was Tasered, kicked and placed in a chokehold. He was eventually surrounded by a semicircle of five officers after one officer felt a “sharp poke in [his] side” and shouted that Jones had a knife, according to court records. In his final moments, the court recounted, Jones lay between “a stone wall and a wall of five officers, who collectively fired 22 bullets.”
He died just before midnight. Officers who searched Jones’s body found a small fixed blade knife in his right sleeve.
Jones’s family sued the city and the police officers for excessive force in a long-running case that has been dismissed at the district court three times. The district court judge found the officers were protected from legal action by qualified immunity.
The appeals court decision Tuesday reversed the lower court, ruling that the officers can be sued because a reasonable jury could have found that Jones, although armed, had been secured by officers and incapacitated in the final moments before he was shot.
“To award qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage in this case would signal absolute immunity for fear-based use of deadly force, which we cannot accept,” wrote Floyd, who was joined by Chief Judge Roger Gregory and Judge Stephanie Thacker.
The court’s decision means Jones’s family can proceed to trial. Christopher E. Brown, the attorney for Jones’s family, said the appeals court clearly wanted to send a message in light of the national protests demanding change in police practices.
“Qualified immunity may be a high hurdle, but the court is not going to allow it to be used as a shield when excessive force is unwarranted,” he said.
The attorney for the police department, Philip Savrin, and two department leaders did not respond to messages seeking comment.
At the time of the shooting, the department’s policy for responding to aggression was to “meet your aggression with the suspect’s aggression,” according to the court ruling. The department did not have any program or policy for handling interactions with people with mental illness. According to the court ruling, the police chief said the incident had prompted such training.
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