Qualified Immunity, Unauthorized Use of Excessive Force by Police


Conway is the county seat of Faulkner County located in central Arkansas. The city’s police department has 127 sworn officers to protect and serve the 65,000 people living in Conway. These officers have the right to use reasonable force to fulfill their sworn duty to protect individuals and the general community from criminal activity. A police officer who uses reasonable force is shielded by a qualified immunity defense from civil liability.


Excessive Force and Qualified Immunity


Whether or not reasonable force becomes “excessive” is decided by the courts through two narrow questions: first, whether the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right of the injured party, and, second, whether that right was clearly established.


The Supreme Court in 1989 settled the question that the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from excessive police force. A victim of excessive police force, therefore, has a constitutional right to be protected from such force and the right is clearly established.


All police officers sued for using excessive raise a qualified immunity defense. The defense is raised through a motion for summary judgment. In deciding whether or not to grant the motion, the trial court must evaluate the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding the use of force by the officer: the severity of the criminal activity that precipitated police intervention, whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, or whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or trying to evade arrest by flight.


Suspect Holding Knife Shot 4 Times, Paralyzed


On March 15, 2013, the Conway Police Department received a report about a robbery in progress in a local apartment complex with the victim hiding in a closet after being stabbed. Three officers arrived at the apartment complex almost simultaneously. They found John Morrison Raines standing on a sidewalk outside the apartment complex. He had a knife in his hand. One officer ordered him to drop the knife. Raines responded by raising the knife just above shoulder level and began saying, “fine, fine, fine.” The three officers drew their weapons and repeatedly instructed Raines to “drop the knife!”


Raines responded by shifting his weight from foot to foot on the sidewalk while waving the knife back and forth. Additional officers arrived at the scene. All the officers presented formed a semi-circle around Raines. They all had drawn weapons. They warned Raines he would be shot if he came toward them. In a March 5, 2018 decision, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals picks up what transpired next:


“When Officer Rachel Hanson arrived on the scene, she pointed her handgun at Raines and instructed him to ‘Drop the knife!’ She then re-holstered her weapon, drew her taser, and moved towards Raines. Detective Jason Cameron, with his gun drawn, positioned himself directly behind Officer Hanson to provide protection and ‘cover’ to Officer Hanson. The taser video camera confirmed that at some point during Officer Hanson’s approach towards Raines, Officers Burningham, Culliford, and Burroughs began firing their weapons at Raines. Detective Cameron did not fire his weapon. In total, officers fired twenty-one shots. Raines was struck four times—in the left arm, left face, left chest, and mid-back. As a result of the encounter, Raines is paralyzed from waist down.”


Court Allows Case to Proceed Over Claim of Qualified Immunity


The estate of Raines sued the three officers who fired the twenty-one shots and the City of Conway. The three officers promptly moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. After considering all the evidence, the federal district denied the summary judgment—a ruling the officers appealed to the Eighth Circuit.  A three-judge appeals panel upheld the district court’s ruling on March 5, 2018.


The Raines case is instructive for two reasons. First, and foremost, Raines posed no threat to Officer Hanson, or any of the other officers. Hanson had holstered her weapon and was cautiously approaching the suspect with an armed taser prepared to shoot. Detective Cameron was right behind her with a drawn weapon prepared to fire if Raines took any aggressive action, which he did not.


Clear Excessive Force


The three officers, for no good reason, opened non-stop fire until they had collectively discharged twenty-one rounds. There could be no more classic example of excessive force than that exhibited by these three officers. Raines did not physically or even verbally threaten any of the officers—and even if he had, the 50,000-volt taser held by Officer Hanson would have taken him down or Detective Cameron would have taken him down with his drawn weapon.


987 People Killed by Police in 2017


The Washington Post reported that 987 people were killed in the U.S. in 2017 by the police. The BMJ Injury Prevention Journal reported that in 2012, while U.S. police made an estimated 12.3 million arrests, 2.8 million stop and frisks, and roughly 1 million traffic stops, they killed or injured 55,400 people.


Many of the people killed or injured each year by the police are done so in a completely unnecessary manner as in the Raines case. Our society cannot accept, as do many living in totalitarian regimes, that the police can become judge, jury and executioner in a confrontation with its citizens. Raines was a mental patient suffering a breakdown. He is now permanently paralyzed because the police gunned him down during that breakdown.


Police Need De-escalation Training


The second instructive point about the tragic Raines shooting is this: three officers standing within feet of Raines fired twenty-one bullets at him but managed to hit him with only four of them. These officers were trained respond to emergency situations and to use their weapons in lethal situations. They performed miserably.  They were stressed, frightened and ill-equipped to deal with an obviously mentally ill suspect.


And gun rights advocates believe they can arm teachers, put them through a basic training program, and expect them to perform at a professional level when facing an armed mass shooter in a class room.


The three Conway police officers, facing a mental patient armed only with a knife, fired twenty-one shots in a panic-state managing to hit the patient just four times. God only knows where those other 17 bullets went and what they struck.


Extrapolate this police confrontation into a classroom where a teacher armed with a Glock loaded with a 13-round clip confronts a shooter with an AR-15.


To believe teachers can perform better than police defies logic.