Cop runs license check on a suspicious vehicle. Although they apparently committed no traffic violation, cop insists that his decision to run a check had nothing to do with the fact that the occupants were black, and happened to be driving in an affluent, predominately white neighborhood. The cop’s partner apparently then enters the wrong license number, which returns a car that had been reported stolen. So cop follows car into driveway, which happens to be the home of the driver’s parents, where he lives. Cop approaches driver and occupant with his gun drawn. Driver’s parents come out to see what’s causing the commotion. Cop roughs up driver’s mother. Driver gets up from ground to tell cop to lay off of his mother. Cop shoots driver, a full 32 seconds after pulling into the driveway.Two thoughts: First, if George Zimmerman had a badge and did exactly what he did in Florida, this would be the result. The frustration expressed nationally over Zimmerman's apparent immunity from prosecution repeats itself over and over whenever police shoot unarmed suspects, but in those cases the media usually give much more deference to the shooter (plus, unlike Mr. Zimmerman, police departments have full-time PR departments spinning their side to the press). Qualified immunity shouldn't amount to a license to kill, but as a practical matter that's exactly what it means.
The driver, who was unarmed, will now carry a bullet in his liver for the rest of his life. The cop was charged with first degree aggravated assault. A jury acquitted him. Now this week, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon dismissed the driver’s lawsuit against both the cop that fired his gun and the cop who entered the wrong license plate number, citing qualified immunity. According to Harmon, the officer acted “reasonably,” and moreover, wrongly accusing an unarmed man of stealing a car, pointing a gun at him, then shooting him in the liver, “did not violate [his] constitutional rights.”
Both cops are back on the force. The guy with the bullet in his liver? Tough luck. He’ll be paying his own medical bills.
Second, this speaks directly to the issue raised in yesterday's post about civil rights violations as a consequence of database errors. In this case it wasn't bad information in the database but user error that created the problem, but that distinction hardly matters from the perspective of the family whose innocent, unarmed son was first racially profiled then falsely accused then shot in the liver. (The court said there was no evidence of racial profiling, but there's a reason a cop in Bellaire, a wealthy enclave in Harris County, runs the license plate number of a black kid in a nice car driving through the neighborhood, and it's not because that's what he does with everybody.) It's also human error when false information is inputted into (or not removed from) a database, which is part of the problem. Databases no longer merely confirm suspects, as law-enforcement records did in the past; they independently generate them, and not always accurately. This kid didn't do anything to appear suspicious; the database was his only accuser. And when a database error got him shot, existing court precedents say law enforcement cannot be held responsible. That's not right.