Ferguson Effect Claims Chief of San Francisco PD

If the shooting happened as reported, the sergeant is on firm legal ground. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly and emphatically that the Fourth Amendment is not violated when a police officer uses deadly force to bring a dangerous police chase to a halt. The most recent case to address this issue is Plumhoff v. Rickard (2014) (PDF), in which the Court ruled that police officers from West Memphis, Ark., were justified in shooting a driver who had led them on a high-speed chase into Memphis, Tenn. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court:

Rickard’s outrageously reckless driving posed a grave public safety risk. And while it is true that Rickard’s car eventually collided with a police car and came temporarily to a near standstill, that did not end the chase. Less than three seconds later, Rickard resumed maneuvering his car. Just before the shots were fired, when the front bumper of his car was flush with that of one of the police cruisers, Rickard was obviously pushing down on the accelerator because the car’s wheels were spinning, and then Rickard threw the car into reverse in an attempt to escape.

Some might say the facts of the San Francisco shooting are sufficiently divergent from those in Rickard that the precedent should not apply. The woman who was killed, after all, had driven just 100 feet before crashing into the parked truck, while the eponymous Rickard had gone several miles, at times exceeding 100 miles per hour. But the speed and distance of the chase are not the only indices of its potential danger to the public. The San Francisco police sergeant, having witnessed the woman driving so erratically as to crash after traveling just 100 feet, had a duty to prevent her from escaping and further endangering the public. What might have occurred, how many people might have been endangered, had the officers stood idly by and allowed her to free the car and speed away? To those who would argue that the shooting was improper, I pose a question: How many times must a fleeing driver crash before an officer is allowed to use deadly force to stop him (or her, as the case may be)?

But if the law is clearly on the sergeant’s side, the politics clearly are not. The May 19 incident is San Francisco’s third controversial police shooting in recent months, all of them involving black suspects. (In the previous two shootings, the officers were on equally solid legal ground, but that hardly seems to matter these days.) Hours after this latest shooting, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee asked for and received Suhr’s resignation. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi piled on to condemn the shooting. “[The dead woman] was entitled to due process,” he said, “and, above all, she was entitled to her life. Police reforms and policy changes are meaningless if they aren’t accompanied by a major shift in police culture, away from shooting first and asking questions later.”