Was the Use of Force Policy to Blame for Fatal Shooting?

by | June 22, 2023

Edwards v. Balch Springs, 2023 WL 3916280 (5th Cir. 2023)

Officers responded to a report of underage drinking at a house party. Two officers entered the house and found no drugs or drinking at the party. While the officers were in the house, they heard gunshots outside. Five boys, including Jordan Edwards, had just left the party in a car driven by Jordan’s brother, Vidal Allen. Allen tried to drive away from the shots, but a vehicle blocked the road. Allen reversed, moving toward the shots, with the ultimate goal of navigating to an intersection and alternate escape route. Officer Gross yelled for the car to stop, but Allen continued in reverse toward the intersection before he put the car in drive and drove forward. Allen later reported he did not hear any commands to stop. He testified he was thinking only of getting his brothers and friends home.

Officer Oliver reported Allen accelerated “at/by” the officers and that Gross was “extremely close” to Allen’s car. Officer Gross struck and shattered the car’s rear passenger window and, less than half a second later, Officer Oliver fired five shots. A bullet struck Jordan in the head, killing him instantly. Officer Oliver was fired three days later; he was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Jordan’s father, Odell Edwards, filed suit against Oliver, other individuals and the City of Balch Springs Police Department. Most of the individual claims resulted in settlement. The City first asked the court to dismiss the case, claiming Edwards had failed to state a municipal-liability claim. The court denied that motion; the City then asked the court to grant summary judgment, asserting the police department’s use of force policy was constitutional and that there was insufficient factual evidence of Edwards’ claims for ineffective training, supervision and discipline.

Edwards was in the difficult position of having to argue that Officer Oliver’s shooting at the car was proper under the department’s use of force policy and that the policy itself was unconstitutional. The trial court granted summary judgment for the City, reasoning “the City’s use-of-deadly-force policy is constitutional” and “was not the moving force of Oliver’s conduct.” The court also ruled the plaintiff had not raised a fact question as to whether the City was deliberately indifferent with respect to failure-to-supervise or failure-to-discipline claims.

Edwards appealed, arguing the police department’s use of force policy was facially unconstitutional because it contains “no immediacy requirement necessary to justify an officer’s use of deadly force” and because it calls “for an officer to use the officer’s own subjective beliefs in determining whether deadly force was justified.” Anyone who has ever drafted a critical policy for a public safety agency knows that one simply cannot articulate a rule or guideline for every possible contingency. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court, along with state and federal courts, have provided significant guidance on what is required for a policy to pass constitutional scrutiny. The subject matter experts at Lexipol work closely with skilled attorneys knowledgeable about the contours of legal requirements in a public safety policy.

The appellate court held a police department’s “written policy is itself unconstitutional only if it affirmatively allows or compels unconstitutional conduct.”

The appellate court held a police department’s “written policy is itself unconstitutional only if it affirmatively allows or compels unconstitutional conduct.” In Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati (475 U.S. 469, (1986)), the Supreme Court established the standard for a government entity’s liability as “limited to acts that are, properly speaking, acts of the municipality—that is, acts which the municipality has officially sanctioned or ordered.” Two years later, the Supreme Court elaborated and explained that a policy permitting a range of officer discretion is not facially unconstitutional. The Court held, “If the mere exercise of discretion could give rise to a constitutional violation, the result would be indistinguishable from respondeat superior liability” (City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 (1988)). Thus, a written policy cannot be facially unconstitutional solely due to instructions that it leaves out.

The trial court ruled the policy provisions that bar shooting at a moving vehicle “in an attempt to disable the vehicle” and allow shooting at the driver of a vehicle only when the “officer reasonably believes that a person is immediately threatening the officer or another person with deadly force by means of a vehicle” meant that Officer Oliver’s gunshots were prohibited by department policy. Because the shots were barred by policy, the policy was not a moving force in Jordan’s death.

The court of appeals held the City’s policy passed muster under precedent from the Supreme Court. The policy does not affirmatively allow officers to use deadly force absent an immediate threat or rely on subjective factors when evaluating whether to use deadly force.

Edwards also claimed the police department had a pattern of constitutional violations, citing a number of prior complaints against Oliver. Among those was Oliver’s Facebook post which read that “I will never in my life be as good at anything else as I am at killing people.” The court held the prior constitutional violations were too dissimilar and generalized to establish a pattern. “The prior violations that Edwards identifies certainly reflect individual action that is bad or unwise, but as for the City, they do not amount to a complete disregard of the risk that a violation of a particular constitutional right would follow.” Thus, the plaintiff could not show the deliberate indifference required for allegations of training, supervisory and disciplinary failures.

The state court criminal case that resulted in Oliver’s lengthy prison sentence was all about the lack of justification for shooting into the car and killing Jordan. This case, however, was all about the department’s policy and its alleged ambiguities that the plaintiff claimed contributed to Jordan’s death. Even in a department with a skilled legal advisor, policy management is a challenging—but critical—task.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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