Agencies: Memphis Police Department Tennessee
Last updated: 8 months ago
At about 10:45 p.m. on October 3, 1974, Memphis police officers Leslie Wright and Elton Hymon were dispatched to answer a burglary call next door. Officer Hymon went behind the house as his partner radioed back to the station. Hymon witnessed someone running across the yard. The fleeing suspect, Edward Garner, stopped at a 6-foot-high (1.8 m) chain-link fence. Using his flashlight, Hymon could see Garner's face and hands, and was reasonably sure that Garner was unarmed. The police testified that they believed Garner was 17 or 18 years old; Garner was in fact 15 years old. After Hymon ordered Garner to halt, Garner began to climb the fence. Believing that Garner would certainly flee if he made it over the fence, Hymon shot him. The bullet struck Garner in the back of the head, and he died shortly after an ambulance took him to a nearby hospital. Ten dollars and a purse taken from the burglarized house were found on his person.
Hymon acted according to a Tennessee state statute and official Memphis Police Department policy authorizing deadly force against a fleeing suspect. The statute provided that "if, after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he either flee or forcibly resist, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest."
Garner's father then brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming the City of Memphis, its mayor, the Memphis Police Department, its director, and Officer Hymon as defendants. The District Court found the statute, and Hymon's actions, to be constitutional. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed. The Court of Appeals held that the killing of a fleeing suspect is a "seizure" for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, and is therefore constitutional only when it is reasonable. The court then found that based on the facts in this case, the Tennessee statute failed to properly limit the use of deadly force by reference to the seriousness of the felony.
Tennessee v. Garner seemed like a major victory for those fighting against police brutality. A young, unarmed black boy in Tennessee named Edward Garner was shot in the back and killed by police in Memphis. That boy, who posed no physical harm to the officer, was shot just so he could not get away from a non-violent crime he was suspected of committing. Edward weighed 110 pounds, was in the 8th grade, and was believed to have stolen a wallet with $10 in it. That was in 1974. His father fought for justice for his son, year after year, in court after court, and believed he finally received it in 1985 when the Supreme Court ruled that it is actually unconstitutional to shoot a fleeing suspect like Edward Garner. The court, in what appeared to be a tremendous victory, ruled:
"We are not convinced that the use of deadly force is a sufficiently productive means of accomplishing them to justify the killing of nonviolent suspects. The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so."
Seeing that ruling, many activists and legal scholars believed it would mark a significant shift in the prosecution of police officers who were shooting and killing suspects at will. It didn't. In fact, one key sentence that came later in the ruling, did quite the opposite. That sentence says, "Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force."
The operable word in that sentence is "believe." Tennessee v. Garner introduced the idea that officers did not need to actually be physically threatened in order to use lethal force — they just needed to have "probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or others" in order to use that force.
What looked like a victory for those fighting against police brutality was actually a neutron bomb that would destroy thousands of cases of legitimate instances of police violence. By introducing belief, which apparently does not have to be rooted in fact, into what police are allowed to claim, it is now nearly impossible to prove what officers do or do not believe. The burden of proof to refute the claims of what an officer says he or she believes is so outrageously high, that pretty much the only thing that could contradict it would be a recording or testimony of some type in which it is proven that the officer did not believe they were in danger and is only faking the belief for the sake of the legal case against them. Consequently, once an officer claims that they believed they were in danger, or that the community was in danger, that case, and any case like it, is dead in the water.
For instance, the officers who killed Philando Castile, Amadou Diallo, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and hundreds of others each claimed that they believed they were in grave danger when they shot and killed each of the victims. They weren't in danger, but that's not what Tennessee v. Garner requires. It simply requires that the officer reasonably believes that danger was a real possibility. Amadou Diallo could not have shot four NYPD officers with his wallet, but that didn't matter, because the officers sufficiently convinced the court that they believed his wallet was a gun, and that if they did not shoot him immediately, that they could all be shot and killed. Never mind that Amadou had never touched a gun a day in his life or that he was as sweet and peaceful as a man as you could ever meet. Tennessee v. Garner doesn't give a damn about that. If an officer believes something, they are empowered to use lethal force as an extension of that belief.