In his decision, Judge Norman determined that the officer “cannot be expected to coolly engage in a protracted analysis of all the information known to him in a rapidly changing circumstance, putting the officer in the position of having to make an immediate choice.” NY Times
This is the fascinating rationale– part of it– offered by Mickey J. Norman of Baltimore County Circuit Court– to justify rescinding a $38 million award to the family of Korryn Gaines who, while being served with a summons for a traffic offense, and in the company of her 5-year-old son, was shot to death by Officer Royce Ruby (who has since been promoted).
This is about the source of the judge’s rationale: a Supreme Court judgement. And here again we have an interesting interpretation of facts and law which clearly implies that the police have the right to shoot any person who approaches them, period. Think about it. That is all the woman did. She didn’t have a gun or a weapon of any sort. She called the police asking for help. She went to meet the police she called. They shot her dead. The courts say– with impunity. The article notes that many police forces now actually train their officers to act with impunity– in essence. The law will be interpreted to mean that anybody approaching any officer at any time under any circumstance can be shot because you can’t expect the officer to exercise any kind of judgement in a situation that could be interpreted to consist of a “rapidly changing circumstance”. The woman approached the car. She got closer. That was a “rapidly changing circumstance”.
It is curious that the court did not do any math. How many times a day does an officer face a “rapidly changing circumstances”? How many every week, month, year? The court says you could shoot anyone in range at any of those times, with impunity. What if the court had said, as they should have, you may never shoot unless you are reasonably certain that a real imminent threat to life and limb exists? If you are uncertain, you don’t shoot. That simple. If you don’t like that rule, don’t apply to be a police officer.
The court imposes no obligation upon a police officer to exercise good judgment. It is enough that the circumstances changed– “rapidly” — in the estimation of the police officer who was so weak and frightened and incompetent that his only choice was to draw a revolver and shoot. Frank Hamer would be proud.
I suspect that the judge had decided to rescind the award before he even heard any details about the case. I suspect that, because, when you read the rationale, above, you realize that you could invent such a rationale to justify a police officer entering your home without a warrant and shooting you to death in your bed. Because you might have a handgun under your pillow and an officer “cannot be expected to coolly engage in a protracted analysis of all the information known to him in a rapidly changing circumstance”.
Amazingly, the judge did not conclude that the police should avoid “rapidly changing circumstances” or withdraw from them, to prevent a potentially fatal conflict. No, if a police officer encounters a “rapidly changing circumstance” he can go ahead and shoot somebody and then count on judges like Mickey J. Norman to exempt them from any responsibility.
Remember that Ms. Gaines lost her life over a traffic ticket. Without the overdue traffic fines, there would have been no police invasion, and no shooting. No “rapidly changing circumstances”.
There is a certain constituency out there who will argue that if she would have just obeyed the police, she would be alive today. It was her own fault. This argument assumes that our freedoms do not belong to us, but are granted only at the discretion of the police and the authorities. That is the definition of a police state, of a dictatorship. Furthermore, it assumes that no matter how trivial the offense for which the police are attempting to apprehend someone, the police in that situation are justified in using lethal force.
If I had been the judge in that case, for that reason alone– the relatively trivial nature of the offense– I would have wanted to make a very clear statement to the public and the police that the justice system will not tolerate rogue police officers killing people over traffic tickets.
The defense argues that it was not the traffic ticket. It was the fact that she resisted arrest. And I would say that it is a monstrous exchange here. If our society had to make a choice between collecting overdue traffic fines and the life of a young mother, rationality would prevail and we would find some other more proportionate way to encourage people to obey the rules of the road.