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Police deadly force justified against suicidal man

August 14, 2015

Police who shot and killed a suicidal man in his Cloverdale home were justified in using deadly force under the circumstances, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

William E. Williams was fatally shot after police from various agencies responded to a call for help from family members who said he had locked himself in a bathroom and was threatening to kill himself. Williams told police he had taken an overdose of Xanax and was cutting himself. He said he had knives and threatened to kill anyone who opened the bathroom door.

Police were unable to persuade Williams to come out, and after about 20 minutes they decided to open the door and use Tasers to attempt to bring him under control. But the stun devices had no effect, and Williams came at police brandishing a knife, cutting one of them before he was fatally shot, according to the record.

Williams’ family sued police, claiming excessive use of force in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The 7th Circuit affirmed Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson’s grant of summary judgment for the officers in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Terre Haute Division.

“The undisputed evidence established that Williams had engaged in behavior that endangered his life and necessitated actions by the officers,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the panel in Estate of William E. Williams et al. v. Indiana State Police Department et al., 14-2523.

“Under the rule as announced in (City and County of San Francisco, California v. Sheehan, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 1765, 1775 (2015)), … the officers were not required to allow him to carry out his suicide attempt,” Rover wrote. When officers entered Williams’ room, they initially attempted to take control of him without using deadly force.

“No clearly established law renders the officers’ use of force unreasonable in light of the circumstances that they faced,” the panel held.

Williams was decided in a consolidated opinion with a similar Wisconsin case argued the same day, in which another suicidal person was killed in a police shooting. The panel likewise affirmed the Wisconsin District Court, though that court had denied summary judgment in favor of the police claim on their constitutional and qualified immunity claims.

In that case, Nancy Brown v. Wayne Blanchard and Walworth County, Wisconsin, 14-2808, John Brown was fatally shot by an officer who broke down Brown’s trailer bedroom door because he was threatening to kill himself and had cut himself with a knife. Although officers claimed Brown began approaching with a knife in hand and a “thousand-yard stare,” this is disputed, and their use of lethal force as an initial matter creates a genuine issue of material fact rendering denial of summary judgment proper.


 

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