Police Shooting Cases in the State of Mississippi

Just as the New York City case of Eric Garner’s wrongful death was settling to the tune of $5.9 million, a similar police-involved death occurred in the state of Mississippi. A 39-year old man became embroiled in an altercation with a Stonewall, Mississippi police officer. Witnesses saw the officer put the man in a chokehold, as the man attempted to communicate the fact that he was unable to breathe. The fatal encounter occurred while Jonathan Sanders was riding in a horse-led buggy. The officer apparently flashed his lights behind Sanders, frightening the horse, who reared up, knocking Sanders from the buggy.

The horse ran, and Sanders followed him. The officer pursued Sanders, grabbing him around the neck, pulling him to the ground, and applying a headlock. Sanders was face down with his hands underneath him. Several witnesses said Sanders repeatedly tried to say he could not breathe, and that he did not fight the officer, barely moving throughout the incident. Herrington prevented a bystander from performing CPR on Sanders, maintaining his headlock for as much as 30 minutes until backup and EMP arrived. It is unclear at this point whether Sanders was even suspected of committing a crime, yet his violent takedown by the police officer resulted in his death.

When Can a Police Officer Be Charged with the Death of a Civilian?

It is incredibly rare for a police officer to be charged with a crime after a civilian is killed during an altercation, largely because of the legal standards which determine when a police officer is allowed to use deadly force. What the public clearly sees as crossing the line might not rise to the level of actually breaking the law. While there are many guidelines regarding the use of force by police, it often comes down to whether the officer believed the use of deadly force was necessary—a fairly subjective determination.

There are basically two sets of standards which govern when and why a police officer can use deadly force. One is Mississippi state law which lays out the circumstances under which law enforcement officers are justified in using lethal force on suspect. The other is the policy of the officer’s police department which tells officers when deadly force is appropriate—and when it isn’t. If a police officer simply murdered someone in cold blood while on the job, he or she would be breaking the law as well as violating his employee handbook. An action can be against the police department policy, however, without being against the law.

In the Eric Garner case, the officer violated NYPD’s policy which governs use of force, however, there is no law on the books preventing the use of a chokehold. A standard investigation is performed when a police officer uses deadly force. There is a standard criminal investigation, and the state prosecutor will determine whether the shooting fits the standards under state law for a permissible use of force. If it does not, a crime has been committed, and the officer may be charged with that crime. There will also be an internal investigation, within the officer’s department to determine whether the officer violated the policies governing use of force.

Criminologist David Klinger of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, says police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances:

  • To protect their own life or that of another innocent party and
  • To prevent a suspect from escaping—only if there is probable cause to believe the suspect poses a danger to others.

This does not mean police are allowed to shoot any potential suspect who attempts to escape—only those who the officer reasonably believes are a serious threat if they escape. Some police department policies only allow deadly force for defense of life, although others allow deadly force to prevent escape (within the limits of the Supreme Court’s decisions). The key is whether there was an objectively reasonable belief of a threat. As an example, a suspect who is carrying a toy gun which closely resembles a real gun could create a reasonable belief of threat. Even though the officer’s life and that of others was not in danger, he had a reasonable belief that it could be.

Getting the Legal Help You Deserve

If you believe you or a loved one are victims if a police shooting where the officer had no reason to believe there was a threat to life or that an escape was imminent, it is time to discuss your case with an experienced attorney from the Stroud Law Firm. If you are in the Southaven, Olive Branch, Horn Lake, Tunica, or Desoto area, you can call our firm and speak to an experienced, knowledgeable attorney. We believe in protecting your rights and your future, and will work hard to those ends on your behalf. Call the Stroud Law Firm today at (662) 536-5656.