(CN) - The former Memphis police chief must face claims that he "rubber stamped" police shootings and sent the message that people "are being killed by design," the Sixth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
"Here, we have allegations that a government official with supervisory responsibility ratified the conduct of officers who shoot first and make judgments later, evincing a brazen disregard for human life," Judge Damon Keith said, writing for a three-judge panel. "Ratification of such conduct is abhorrent. It not only flouts accountability, but it undermines the integrity of our justice system."
Tuesday's ruling continued: "Where internal investigations repeatedly yield only 'rubber stamps' of approval for unconstitutional conduct, it sends the message that human beings are not being killed by accident - they are being killed by design. The law simply does not allow government officials to use qualified immunity to escape liability for such wrongs."
In April 2013, officers Joel Dunaway and Steve McMillen shot and killed Anjustine Vanterpool, a 28-year-old black man, at a gas station in Memphis, Tenn.
The officers fired seven shots into the front and rear windows of Vanterpool's car.
According to the police, Vanterpool was pumping gas into his car when they approached him because his registration tags were expired.
They claim Vanterpool got back into the car and tried to drive away from the officers, hitting McMillen in the process.
But witnesses claim that McMillen "lunged or jumped towards or on the hood of" Vanterpool's car with his gun drawn as Vanterpool tried to pull away, just before both officers shot at the vehicle.
Police admit that no one saw Vanterpool commit any crime.
Vanterpool's family sued the Memphis Police Department, including former director Toney Armstrong individually, for excessive force.
The family says that Memphis police killed 18 people from April 2012 to April, 23, 2013, the day Vanterpool was killed.
In 2012, Armstrong "acknowledged a dire need to review and improve the police department's operations," and "noted that the MPD needed to improve its disciplinary process," but took no action on the issue, according to the lawsuit.
In September 2012, "Mayor A.C. Wharton publicly admonished Director Armstrong and described the MPD as 'unacceptable' and in need of outside scrutiny to analyze its shortcomings in recruitment, accountability, and training in ethical standards," the complaint states.
The family claims Armstrong perpetuated a custom and pattern of exonerating officers who used excessive force.
Both Dunaway and McMiller had been involved in separate incidents involving the use of excessive force prior to Vanterpool's death, but neither had been disciplined, according to court records.
The Sixth Circuit denied Armstrong qualified immunity against the family's supervisory claims on Tuesday.
"The complaint plausibly alleges that, at a minimum, Armstrong knowingly acquiesced in the unconstitutional conduct of his subordinates," Keith wrote in the 16-page ruling.
Taken as true, the complaint asserts that 18 people had been shot and/or killed by Memphis police officers in the prior year, but no improvements had been made to the department's disciplinary process, the Cincinnati-based appeals court found.
"The complaint sufficiently alleges that Armstrong's state of mind was a step further - he had actual knowledge of the increasing frequency of shootings involving MPD officers. He even publicly acknowledged the need for change, but failed to follow through with any changes. Armstrong's alleged conduct of 'rubber stamping' the behavior of officers who shot and killed individuals with increasing frequency 'could be reasonably expected to give rise to just the sort of injuries that occurred' - Vanterpool's unfortunate death," Keith said.
The court did not mince words in placing Armstrong's conduct in a long lineage of racially-motivated police failure to protect black citizens.
"It is worth noting that § 1983 originated as a part of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871," Keith wrote. "One of the original purposes of § 1983 was to 'impose a 'duty of protection' on local officials[;] a duty to protect blacks from the night riders and others who systematically deprive[d] them of their civil rights.'"
The ruling noted that the unequal use of force upon black and white citizens has reached a state of crisis in many American cities.
While it is unclear whether the family will be able to prove its allegations, "it would be a perversion of justice to allow a person who might be crippled by officials acting under color of state law to then be crippled by the courts during the infancy of his or her case," the opinion concluded.
Armstrong retired from the Memphis Police Department in January and took a security director job at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, according to local news reports.
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