The mob has claimed another victim. This time the setting was the beautiful though peculiar city of San Francisco, where they came with the torches and pitchforks to place (now former) police chief Greg Suhr’s head atop a fencepost, there to join that of (now former) Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy. Recall that the mob had been screaming for McCarthy’s head for some time in Chicago, and that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in the furor that erupted after the Laquan McDonald shooting, chose to hand it over in the hope of saving his own. It surely came as no surprise to McCarthy; he knows how the game is played.
Suhr must have been watching the goings-on in Chicago with dread. The political machinery in San Francisco might be less Machiavellian than Chicago’s (what city’s isn’t?), but for some time Suhr had been watching the ground erode away beneath his feet. Now he, too, has been shown the exit, this owing to a controversial police shooting. But unlike the Laquan McDonald shooting, about which there was and continues to be ample reason for controversy, the shooting that would bring Suhr’s downfall was entirely justified.
As reported at SFGate.com, on the morning of May 19, police officers were in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood working a stolen-vehicle detail. When they tried to stop a woman in a stolen car, she sped off. She drove only about 100 feet, however, before she crashed into a parked truck. The officers ordered the woman out of the car, but rather than surrender, she attempted to dislodge the car in an apparent effort at continued flight. One of the officers, a sergeant, fired a single round that struck the woman. She was taken to a hospital, where she died.
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.”
Adachi is presumably familiar with the Rickard case, so his protestations about denial of due process and all the rest did not arise from ignorance, but rather from the theatrics that in the current political climate invariably follow whenever a black suspect is shot by a police officer. As the public defender for San Francisco, it is in his clients’, and therefore his, best interests to discredit the police whenever, wherever, and however possible. A defendant in court is of course entitled to a presumption of innocence. How much stronger might the presumption be among potential jurors who have heard Adachi’s pronouncement on this shooting? And, to respond directly to Adachi’s inflammatory rhetoric, the officers did ask questions first: they asked the woman to stop. She refused, probably not the only exercise in bad judgment in her abbreviated life but surely the last.
Now installed as San Francisco’s interim police chief is Toney Chaplin, formerly a deputy chief in the department’s internal affairs unit. Chaplin has promised a “top-to-bottom” review of the department, and said his top priority is “reforms, reforms, reforms.” One hopes he has some specifics in mind, but if one of his reforms is to allow car thieves to speed off recklessly without fear of consequences, will San Francisco really be better off?