Patricia Phillips never imagined that her son would be killed by police when she called 911 in December, 2008. Her 30-year-old son, whom Phillips described to police as “bipolar and a drug addict who surely needs treatment,” was on the waiting list for a live-in drug program when he stole his mother’s car and purse one evening and drove off. She reported the incident to police, and in the pursuit that followed, Adam Phillips never disobeyed any traffic laws or threatened violence to officers.
When the car stalled, the officers that had been following him surrounded Phillips and asked that he roll down the windows and exit the vehicle. He never did so, and the moments that followed ended in five fatal shots by Corporal Richard Logsdon. A federal judge ruled last week that Logsdon and others from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department will never have to go to trial on allegations that they used excessive force. U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra writes:
In a perfect world, Adam Phillips would not have died on December 1, 2008, but the law does not require perfection – it requires objective reasonableness. Cpl. Logsdon did not have the weeks that this Court has spent reviewing the facts and analyzing the case law. He did not have days. He did not have hours. He did not have minutes. At the point in time when he saw Adam Phillips trying to get something out of his pocket, he had seconds to decide what to do. He did not simply shoot. He screamed at Mr. Phillips to show his hands. We will never know why Mr. Phillips did not do so then, or why he did not exit the vehicle when he was directed to do so earlier during the encounter. Whatever the reason was, as the Court sits here today with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is unreasonable to suggest that Cpl. Logsdon should have assumed that the reason was innocuous.
The Court finds that under the totality of the circumstances facing Cpl. Logsdon immediately before he shot Adam Phillips, a reasonable officer would have thought that deadly force was necessary to avert an imminent threat of danger to himself and/or the other deputies comprising the stick. Therefore, the Court finds that Cpl. Logsdon’s use of deadly force was objectively reasonable under the circumstances and did not constitute a violation of Adam Phillips’ constitutional rights. Cpl. Logsdon is entitled to the protection afforded by qualified immunity and to summary judgment in his favor.
Marra’s detailed depiction of the scene that night portrays both the urgency and procedural flaws that often characterize incidents of excessive police force. Officers’ attempts to forcibly remove Phillips from the car failed when they improperly used the instrument for breaking the window. Through a small hole they pierced in the tinted windows, Logdson saw Phillips reaching for his pocket and became panicked. Logdson said he didn’t know it was Phillips’ mother who had reported the incident, nor that Phillips had no history of violence. In hindsight, almost everyone involved agrees that police should have handled the incident differently. Nonetheless, factual and moral ambiguity make this a hard case. Police safety is an important consideration, but so, too, is the chilling effect on public safety when mothers, friends, and others may now hesitate to call the police at all. The shame of this ruling and so many others that immunize law enforcement officers from suit is that the facts will never be hashed out in testimony before a jury.