(Kumi’s children, scene of the shooting, Alvin Smothers, who survived)
On Friday August 29th, an undercover NYPD officer with the Firearms Investigation Unit sat in his car in Mt. Vernon NY, just north of NYC, waiting to purchase a gun from a supplier he had bought firearms from at least 10 times prior.
At this point, a different individual, later identified as Alvin Smothers, allegedly approached the officer’s vehicle, put a gun to his head, and robbed him of the cash he was going to use to buy the gun(s).
The NYPD has not described what happened next – if the officer identified himself, pulled his weapon, fought back, attempted an arrest, or what – but we know that Alvin Smothers fled from the vehicle.
Alvin fled far enough from the vehicle that the officer had to fire a reported 11 to 21 shots to hit him. Two of the officers bullets hit an innocent bystander, Felix Kumi, killing him.
Presumably, the shots were intended for Alvin. Or perhaps the officer mistook Felix for Alvin, and shot him dead, before realizing his mistake.
Either way, the officer never should have opened fire, and Felix should still be alive.
The seminal Supreme Court case on the acceptable use of force against a fleeing suspect is Tennessee v. Garner. In the decision, the Supreme Court states that police may only use deadly force “when necessary to prevent the escape AND the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” (Emphasis mine.)
In this case, the officer did not have probable cause to believe that the suspect posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to himself or others.
He may have believed Alvin was armed, but even so, he had probable cause to believe Alvin would not or could not use the firearm, because during and after whatever interaction caused Alvin to flee, Alvin fled rather than use the weapon. The officer had no probable cause to believe Alvin would use it later. And indeed, the gun was fake.
(In later reports, the NYPD has claimed Alvin pointed the gun at the officer as he fled. It seems dubious that an unarmed man would point a fake gun at a man he felt the need to flee.)
But the officer chose to violate the suspect’s constitutional right anyway, killing an innocent bystander in the process, exemplifying why firing at a fleeing suspect is illegal, and why our courts must hold officers to a higher threshold for use of force – because innocent people are winding up dead.
In the current political climate, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, we must also consider that both of the officer’s victims were black.
An extensive study now shows that people are quicker and more likely to shoot at targets if they are black. Whatever the underlying reasons, the ramifications for law enforcement are clear.
Would the officer have pulled the trigger if the suspect had been white? Would the officer have fired if there were a white innocent bystander in harms way?
We may never know, but it is clear the officer violated the civil rights of Felix Kumi, depriving him of life and liberty with the reckless use of his weapon, for no other reasons than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and likely violated the civil rights of Alvin Smothers, as well.
In addition to exemplifying why it is illegal for officers to shoot fleeing suspects unless they pose a significant threat, the death of Felix Kumi exemplifies the point of the Black Lives Matter movement: cops are treating black people as if their lives don’t matter.