(CN) – Police officers in Arizona used excessive force when they shot a distraught man in the back three times while he held his 2-year-old daughter, a federal judge ruled.
David Hulstedt had a history of mental-health problems when he got into a standoff with police in 2008 after arguing with his parents at their Scottsdale home.
Hulstedt had called 911 and demanded to see former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, and a dispatcher marked the call as a high priority because background noise of yelling and a crying baby indicated that others may be in danger.
Fearing that the officers who responded to the scene would shoot him, Hulstedt refused to come out of the house with his 2-year-old daughter, D.H. At one point Hulstedt threatened to “pile drive” the child unless police negotiators sent his brother into the house.
About 30 minutes into the standoff, Hulstedt left the house, unarmed, with the child in his arms. But he turned around after only a few steps and walked back toward the front door, holding D.H. over his head. Scottsdale Police Sgt. Richard Slavin, about 96 feet away, yelled, “Put that child down!”
Within seconds of the warning, Officer James Dorer fired his rifle twice at the small of Hulstedt’s back. Slavin fired twice as well. Three bullets hit Hulstedt, causing him to drop D.H. headfirst onto a concrete path. Doctors later treated the little girl for a skull fracture. The gunshots left Hulstedt paralyzed.
Hulstedt and his parents filed a federal complaint against Scottsdale, Slavin, Dorer and others, claiming that the officers had used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Slavin and Dorer defended their actions as reasonable and claimed qualified immunity.
Based partly on a close viewing of a video recording of the incident, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow granted summary judgment to the Hulstedts on their excessive-force claims in a ruling signed last week. Slavin, Dorer and more than a dozen other defendants have since filed an appeal in the 9th Circuit.
“The officers fired at an unarmed man who was walking away from them,” Snow wrote. “Although he had issued threats against D.H. earlier, nothing he did after walking outside would suggest to a reasonable officer that he was placing D.H. in imminent danger of suffering any more harm than falling to the ground. By shooting David, the officers caused the very harm that a reasonable officer could believe that David posed to D.H. Considering ‘the totality of the facts and circumstances in the particular case,’ no reasonable officer could have believed that shooting David without warning, while he calmly walked back towards his house with D.H. over his head, was a proper means of protecting D.H.’s safety.”
Several other allegations ended in summary judgment for the defendants, but Snow refused to rule on excessive-force and battery claims related to the dragging of the injured Hulstedt from the scene, and on some municipal liability claims.