Published on:

Damage claim for police shooting denied on grounds of qualified immunity

This is an appeal by the estate of Shaw who was killed by a Selma Alabama police officer after the district courted granted a summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Shaw’s estate filed a lawsuit against the City of Selma, the police chief and the police officer for excessive force and false arrest under 1983 as well as several state law tort claims. Because the court found that Shaw posed there a threat of physical harm at the time he was shot, the appellate court upheld the dismissal.

Here is how the facts unfolded. The Selma Police received an emergency call from a Church’s Chicken restaurant about an incident involving a 74-year-old mentally disturbed man who attempted to enter the restaurant but was turned away because he had apparently there a few days earlier armed with a knife. When officers arrived, he was spotted at a nearby laundromat and the events were recorded on the officer’s body camera. There Shaw picked up an axe. The officer drew his weapon and ordered him to put down the axe. As Shaw left premises and walked toward the Church’s restaurant the officers followed him. At one point Shaw turned toward the officer shouting at the officer to “Shoot it”. When Shaw was less than five feet away moving toward him with axe in hand and still yelling at the officer to shoot it, the officer fired at Shaw and killed him.

The district court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motions on the grounds of qualified immunity.

The appellate court decided the issue here on whether an officer in the defendant’s position reasonably could have believed that Shaw posed a serious threat when he was close to and advancing on the officer with an axe in his hand and having ignored more than two dozen orders to drop the weapon.

The federal appellate court rejected the estate’s argument that if Shaw had not raised the axe in his hand then no officer reasonably could have believed that Shaw posed an immediate threat to the officer or others. The court viewed the reasonableness conduct of the officer on the totality of the circumstances. Shaw, mentally ill and dangerous according to information given to the officer at the time, had ben reported for threatening customers with a knife a same business only a few days before. He presented himself to be a clear danger at the time of the axe wielding incident, advancing on the officer yelling at the officer “shoot it.” Whether the hatchet was at Shaw’s side, behind his back, or above his head does not change the fact that Shaw could have raised the hatchet in another second or two and struck the officer.

Given those circumstances a reasonable officer could have believed that Shaw posed a threat of serious physical injury or death at that moment. “A reasonable officer could have also concluded as [the officer] apparently did, that the law did no require him to wait until the hatchet was being swung toward him before firing in self-defense.” The civil rights claim for damages from the police shooting was denied on grounds of qualified immunity.