A federal judge has denied Aurora police officers qualified immunity in a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from the fatal 2019 shooting of Shamikle Jackson, who was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of his killing.
U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson (no relation) determined the allegations against four Aurora police officers plausibly established that they knew Shamikle Jackson to be alone, unarmed and not dangerous, but nonetheless created the conditions for use of deadly force inside his home.
The judge's order comes two years after the former district attorney for Adams County, Dave Young, found insufficient evidence to prosecute Officer Justin Henderson for shooting the 22-year-old Jackson inside his sister's apartment. It was "reasonable for him to believe that under these circumstances" Henderson thought his or his fellow officers' lives were in danger, Young concluded.
Henderson is the same officer who received a suspension last year for pointing his gun at local doctor P.J. Parmar outside of a building Parmar owned, while Parmar repeatedly told Henderson to leave his property. That incident is the subject of a separate civil rights lawsuit against Henderson.
According to the lawsuit filed by Jackson's parents, Jackson called 9-1-1 on March 4, 2019 in the middle of a mental health crisis. He told the dispatcher he had two hostages, and also that two people were dead. Henderson and officers Bridget Johnson, Keith Matthews, Toney Hannon and Clark Orchard responded to the 2200 block of North Dallas Street. At least one officer believed the 9-1-1 call to be a prank.
Allegedly, Jackson's sister answered the door, telling officers she and her brother were the only ones at home. Johnson stayed behind to question the sister, and radioed to the other officers that Jackson was reportedly unarmed and had mental health issues.
"The Defendant Officers had time and an obligation to further assess the situation and come-up with a proper plan, information-gather, and engage in de-escalating tactics or other appropriate courses of action," attorneys for Jackson's surviving family wrote in the lawsuit. "Instead the Defendant Officers collectively chose to recklessly move forward and ignore the planning, gathering information and deploying deescalating tactics."
The officers "quickly and aggressively" approached Jackson at the end of a long, narrow hallway with weapons allegedly drawn, which culminated in Henderson shooting Jackson. The civil suit made claims of wrongful death, excessive force, and assault and battery.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the officers and the city of Aurora presented a different narrative: that Jackson charged the officers "from behind a closed door, brandishing a machete overhead." The officers believed Jackson had killed people and was holding others hostage, and their conduct inside the apartment was reasonable, the motion argued.
Judge Jackson did not consider footage from Henderson's body-worn camera when issuing his Sept. 3 order, but rather took into account the severity of the crime of which Shamikle Jackson was suspected, the threat posted to officers, and whether Shamikle Jackson was actively resisting or attempting to flee. Given the knowledge that Shamikle Jackson was reportedly alone, without weapons and suffering from mental illness, the judge determined Jackson was liable only for misdemeanor false reporting of an emergency, meaning use of force was not likely reasonable.
"The alleged constitutional violation that ended when Officer Henderson shot Mr. Jackson had begun when Officer Henderson unreasonably created the need to use deadly force by entering the apartment with his gun drawn," Judge Jackson wrote, accepting the lawsuit's claims as true for the time being. "Officers Orchard, Hannon, and Matthews did more than observe Henderson’s unreasonable escalation — they joined him."
The judge denied the officers qualified immunity, which is a judicial doctrine that shields government employees from civil liability unless they violate a person's clearly-established legal rights. The ruling applied to Henderson for shooting Shamikle Jackson, and to the others for failing to intervene. Judge Jackson did dismiss the claim against Johnson, finding she acted appropriately in gathering information from Shamikle Jackson's sister and informing her coworkers.
The judge noted that while Shamikle Jackson's family had prevailed at this stage, they may face an uphill climb as more evidence comes into play.
"If, as defendants contend, Mr. Jackson was advancing toward Officer Henderson with a machete at the time of the shooting, then Officer Henderson would have been acting in self-defense in the instant he shot Mr. Jackson," Judge Jackson wrote. "For plaintiffs to ultimately prevail in this case, discovery might have to confirm that every minute detail of the encounter on March 4, 2019 unfolded exactly how plaintiffs describe. Real-world experience tells me this result is unlikely."
The city of Aurora announced this week that it will begin a pilot program for responding to behavioral health crises, one that dispatches mental health clinicians instead of armed officers. The professionals are capable of crisis intervention and de-escalation, which could have potentially made the difference in Shamikle Jackson's case.
The case is Flores et al. v. Aurora et al.