A police officer holding a gun (Getty Images)
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A Salt Lake City cop shot and killed an unarmed man in 2014 after he reached into his waistband—potentially in an attempt to pull up his pants—and didn’t immediately follow police orders to show his hands.
The man’s family decried the shooting as excessive and the fault of “trigger-happy” law enforcement. But a panel of appeals court judges just agreed that the cop responsible for killing Dillon Taylor acted “reasonably.” What’s more, they sided with a federal judge’s previous call to grant Officer Bron Cruz qualified immunity, or the protection of the near-impenetrable legal doctrine infamous for shielding cops from misconduct lawsuits.
“Officers need not wait until they see the gun’s barrel or the knife’s blade before using deadly force to protect themselves or those around them,” 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jerome Holmes wrote in the ruling Tuesday, which stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Taylor’s family. “They must simply act reasonably.”
Cruz had said in a deposition with the local district attorney’s office that he feared for his life and believed that Taylor had a gun at the time of the shooting, according to the Deseret News. While Holmes acknowledged the shooting was tragic and that Cruz was mistaken in believing Taylor was armed, he said the officer’s perception was reasonable.
In 2014, officers, including Cruz, approached Taylor while responding to a 911 call about a Hispanic man who’d flashed a gun. Body-camera footage shows that Taylor at first walked away from Cruz, who then commanded Taylor to stop and show his hands. But Taylor did not comply and instead turned to face the officer with his hands still in his pants, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
When he pulled them out, Cruz shot him twice.
The ruling in Taylor’s case isn’t all that surprising—but that’s what makes qualified immunity such a threat to justice, according to the doctrine’s opponents. Lawmakers and criminal justice advocates have repeatedly fought to end or reform what they perceive as the massive, unfair hurdle to people attempting to hold officers personally accountable for civil rights violations. But the Supreme Court, which created qualified immunity in the first place, has indicated it’s here to stay, at least for now.
At least one judge on the panel that heard Taylor’s case, however, thinks that’s pretty concerning,
Cruz shot Taylor within just 22 seconds of pulling up at a 7-Eleven, at which point Taylor’s sole crimes were “walking away from an unconstitutional police stop and pulling up his pants,” Senior Circuit Judge Carlos F. Lucero wrote in his dissent to Tuesday’s ruling. Police didn’t have reason to reasonably suspect Taylor, who was with two other men at the time, of a crime, and Taylor also had a right to walk away, according to Lucero.
“The majority concludes, as a matter of law, that it was objectively reasonable, based on
qualified immunity, to free Officer Cruz from any liability without a trial,” Lucero wrote. “This cannot be right.”
Taylor was holding only a cell phone, headphones, wallet, a lighter, a Snickers bar, and a nickel when he died, Lucero said, making him “nothing but a normal young American.” Lucero noted that while Taylor was shot for complying too slowly, the other two men were “chastised for raising their hands too quickly.
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