by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of Boston Police Department
One perspective on the U.S. Supreme Court’s November 9 decision in Mullenix v. Luna that might reify the issue for those not familiar with the netherworld of policing should perhaps come from one longtime police officer not always standing on the “right” side of the “thin blue line.” I am not an attorney, but a former police officer turned academic, and I know a bad shooting when I see one. The 2010 killing of Israel Leija Jr. by Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Trooper Chadrin Mullenix was just such a bad shooting and should never have happened. Mullenix’s use of deadly force in shooting Leija, using a rifle and firing six shots from a distance of 25-30 yards, was deemed “reasonable” by the Court, who granted Mullenix “qualified immunity,” thus shielding him from civil liability in Leija’s death.
This is once again a situation where circumstances brought about in large part by police actions, while legal, led to the needless death of a young man of color. Leija, who was known by the police and who had an outstanding warrant for a probation violation, fled from the police in his car when they approached him to place him under arrest. The police gave pursuit and engaged in a high-speed chase at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour, for a probation violation by an individual known to them. They knew who he was and where he lived, so my decades of police experience cause me to question: Why are you chasing this guy and endangering the public (and yourselves)? This is not a dangerous and violent fleeing felon (or at least he wasn’t until the police began chasing him). This in no way justifies or absolves the clear wrongdoing on the part of Leija, but it is ultimately fair to question the wisdom of the police participation in this high-speed chase. Any police supervisor I know would have ordered the almost immediate termination of this reckless and unnecessary pursuit.
As for the shooting, Justice Sotomayer, in her insightful and convincing dissent, noted: “Mullenix had no training in shooting to disable a moving vehicle and had never seen the tactic done before” (that’s because the “tactic” doesn’t exist). She further wrote: “He also lacked permission to take the shots” (in fact he was ordered not to by his supervisor). The officers who initiated the pursuit had devised a strategy to deploy “spike strips” to disable Leija’s vehicle and to terminate the pursuit; they had set the strips at three separate locations and taken nearby cover, all in compliance with their tactical training. Mullenix believed that he knew better and that he would not wait the literally three-quarters of one second it would have taken to see if the spike strips were successful in immobilizing Leija’s vehicle before he opened fire, missing his “intended target” (the vehicle’s engine block), and killing Leija.