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The U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the bitter turmoil over police shootings this week. By a lopsided 7-2 vote, the court ruled an Arizona police officer is shielded from being sued for shooting a woman in her own front yard. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The court said the police officer acted reasonably given that the woman, Amy Hughes, was carrying a large kitchen knife, that she was standing within striking distance of another woman in her driveway who, unbeknownst to the police, was Hughes' roommate, and that Hughes failed to drop the knife when ordered to do so. The Supreme Court threw out Hughes' lawsuit, saying the shooting was reasonable based on what the policeman knew at the time and the split-second nature of the decision he made. Indeed, even if he did use excessive force, the justices said, he can't be sued because he didn't violate any clear constitutional or statutory right.
The court's dissenting justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leveled a blast of their own. Writing for the two, Sotomayor observed that Hughes was nowhere near the police officers, had committed no illegal act, was suspected of no crime, did not raise the knife towards anyone, and may not have heard the command to drop the knife.
Indeed, while there were three officers on the scene, only one fired his gun. The dissenters charge that by tossing the case out of court instead of letting it go to a jury, the Supreme Court is telling police they can shoot first and think later. And it's telling the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.
There are few reliable statistics about police shootings, whether questionable or fully justified, so few that two years ago then-FBI Director James Comey called the lack of data embarrassing and ridiculous. The most complete statistics about fatal police shootings have been compiled by The Washington Post. The paper's national database shows there are just shy of 3,000 from 2015 through 2017. When it comes to shootings that wound but don't kill like the Hughes case, however, there are no reliable national statistics, though Vice News has compiled a database for the nation's largest 47 police departments. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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