Oakes v. Anderson: “Objectively Reasonable” Force Against Perceived Threat

DeKalb Police3

Oakes v. Anderson involves a case where officers did everything possible to de-escalate a suicidal man (Mr. Oakes) but Oakes refused to stand down.  Then, in reaction to a perceived threat, a DeKalb County (Georgia) police officer shot Mr. Oakes. Even though Mr. Oakes did not actually pull his gun, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the officer’s use of force was OBJECTIVELY REASONABLE in responding to the percieved threat.

After reviewing the facts of this case, we will compare it to a somewhat similar case that had a very different legal outcome—Glenn v. Washington County.  This article will explore what the officers did in these two different cases that caused very different outcomes in federal court. 

First we discuss the Oakes v. Anderson case from DeKalb County, Georgia.

First Officer at the Scene

The first officer at the scene, Officer Daniels (DeKalb Police), was dispatched to a shopping center following a 911 call which indicated possible trouble between some people in the parking lot.

When Officer Daniels arrived at the parking lot, the suicidal man’s girlfriend was present with one other person. The officer was told that Mr. Oakes had been drinking for three days and had threatened suicide. Oakes had said that he wanted to kill himself but could not pull the trigger because he was a “coward.”

The girlfriend showed Officer Daniels a gun case that she had taken out of Oakes’s vehicle, but when Officer Daniels opened the case, he found it to be empty. Officer Daniels and the others believed a gun was somewhere in the car.

Interaction with the Suicidal Man—Mr. Oakes

 Mr. Oakes was leaning against the car when Officer Daniels first arrived but then moved to the driver’s seat of the car, with his legs hanging outside the open door. When Daniels arrived, Oakes became more agitated.

Officer Daniels offered to take Oakes anywhere he wanted to go to get help. Officer Daniels, concerned that Oakes had access to a gun in his car, repeatedly asked in a calm voice for Oakes to leave the vehicle. Oakes refused.

Oakes had committed no crime; Officer Daniels was attempting to help Oakes because of Oakes’s emotional state. He was not under arrest.

Mr. Oaks then put both legs inside the car and continued to sit in the driver’s seat. He refused to let the officers search his vehicle and continued to refuse to leave the vehicle. The officers were concerned about Oakes’s access to a gun in his car, and Oakes became increasingly agitated.

About fifteen minutes after he had first arrived at the scene, Officer Daniels radioed for a supervisor because Daniels felt that he and another officer at the scene were at an impasse with Oakes. Sgt. Anderson (the supervisor) then arrived; he was told that Oakes likely had access to a gun, was depressed and suicidal.

The Supervisor’s Interaction with Oakes

Sgt. Anderson (the supervisor at the scene) approached Oakes and asked if the officers could get him help. He also asked Oakes whether he was on medication. Oakes said that he was prescribed depression medication but was not taking it.

Sgt. Anderson repeatedly asked Oakes if he had a weapon. Oakes said he did not have a weapon. When the officers asked again, Oakes would not answer directly, only saying, “What do you mean by a ‘weapon’”?

Sgt. Anderson was concerned that Oakes was sitting on the gun and asked Oakes if he would sit up so the officers could check. Oakes moved very slightly, but the officers could not see whether a gun was in the seat. Sgt. Anderson repeatedly asked Oakes to step out of the car, just so the officers could ensure there was no weapon

Sgt. Anderson tells Oakes one last time to step out of the car or the officers would have to take him out of the car. Oakes still refused and stated that the officers “better unsnap.”  Sgt. Anderson again told Oakes to “stand down” so the officers could search the car for safety’s sake, to ensure there was no weapon. Oakes again refused to comply.

Sgt. Anderson, who was standing inside the open driver’s door, reached for Oakes’s right arm while Officer Daniels reached for Oakes’s left arm. Oakes flailed his hands and repelled the officers’ hands.

The Situation Escalates

Oakes then reached into the area between the driver’s seat and the center console. Oakes’s right hand was not within the officers’ view. Fearful that Oakes was reaching for his gun, Anderson shouted “gun, gun, gun” to alert the other officers. Anderson did not actually see any gun. He quickly moved to the outside of the open driver’s side door and drew his weapon. Two other officers also drew their weapons.

For about thirty seconds, the officers can be heard on the audio recording repeatedly shouting “show your hands!,” “hands up!,” “one more time, sir hands up!,” and “let me see your hands now!”

Sgt. Anderson said he could see Oakes wiggling his right arm, as if his hand was searching for something between the seat and console. At that point, Anderson saw Oakes jerk his right hand out of the space between the seat and the console and start to move his arm across his body. From this movement, Anderson thought Oakes had grabbed a gun and was pulling it out. Believing Oakes was “fixing to fire,” Anderson shot twice and fatally wounded Oakes.

Anderson had not actually seen a gun.  The other officers also did not see a gun, but saw Oakes arm go up in a rapid jerking motion. No gun was in Oakes’s hand, but a loaded gun was later found between the driver’s seat and the center console in the very area that Oakes had reached; Oakes had access to the gun while he was refusing the commands to show his hand.

“Objectively Reasonable”

Based on this totality of circumstances, the Eleventh Circuit Court concluded that the officers’ actions were objectively reasonable; therefore there was no constitutional violation and the officers were protected by qualified immunity.  Here’s why:

Even though Mr. Oakes had committed no crime and was not under arrest, it was reasonable for Sgt. Anderson to fire upon Oakes in defense of himself, his fellow officers, and bystanders because it was objectively reasonable to believe that Oakes did have a gunThe Eleventh Circuit Court explained:

“The ‘reasonableness’ standard makes allowance for the fact that an officer on the scene is ‘often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.’  The situation here escalated rapidly. In a span of only five seconds, Oakes went from merely being stubborn, to fighting off the officers and reaching his hand into an area where he could have had a loaded gun. For thirty seconds after the officers drew their weapons, he completely ignored repeated demands to show his hands; then he jerked his arm suddenly. This is ‘exactly the type of tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving crisis envisioned by the Supreme Court’ when officers ‘reasonably react to what they perceive as an immediate threat of serious harm to themselves.’”

A “Perceived” Threat—Not an Actual Threat

To repeat: even though Mr. Oakes did not have a gun in his hand, under the totality of the circumstances a reasonable officer would have reacted as Sgt. Anderson did to a perceived immediate threat of serious harm to themselves.  The Eleventh Circuit Court again explained:

“Our task is not to evaluate what the officers could or should have done in hindsight. The sole inquiry is whether the officer’s actions, as taken, were objectively reasonable under all the circumstances. Reconsideration will nearly always reveal that something different could have been done if the officer knew the future before it occurred. This is what we mean when we say we refuse to second- guess the officer.”

The Eleventh Circuit Court continued:

“We need not spend time addressing all of Plaintiffs’ suggestions about actions that the officers could have taken differently. These claims of unreasonableness are made with “the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” rather than from “the perspective of a reasonable police officer on the scene.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396.”

Differences between Oakes v. Anderson | Glenn v. Washington County

Comparing and contrasting this case (Oakes v. Anderson) and the rather similar case from the Ninth Circuit Court (Glenn v. Washington County) is a useful case study.

Similarities

  • In both cases, officers arrived at a scene to find a suicidal man.
  •  Both men were initially a threat to themselves—but not to other people.
  •  In both cases the suicidal man was not under arrest and had not committed a crime.

 The Oakes Case–Differences

In the Oakes case, officers acted deliberately and calmly, slowly trying to talk the man down.  Officers said to the suicidal man the following things:

–Officer Daniels, concerned that Oakes had access to a gun in his car, repeatedly asked in a calm voice for Oakes to leave the vehicle.

–Sgt. Anderson (the supervisor at the scene) approached Oakes and asked if the officers could get him help. He also asked Oakes whether he was on medication.

–Later, after the officers reasonably feared Mr. Oakes had a gun, the officers can be heard for about 30 seconds on an audio recording repeatedly shouting “show your hands!,” “hands up!,” “one more time, sir hands up!,” and “let me see your hands now!”

Sgt. Anderson only shot in response to Mr. Oakes reaching in his console, as if to get a gun, and then jerking his arm out toward the officers in a shooting motion.  This was a perceived threat against the life of the officers, even though Mr. Oakes did not actually grab the gun that was, in fact, in the console.

The Glenn Case–Differences

By contrast, in the Glenn case, from the moment they arrived on the scene, both officers immediately started  screaming commands at Mr. Glenn such as:

–“drop the knife or I’m going to kill you!”

–“drop the knife or you’re going to die!”

–drop the fucking knife!”

Even though Mr. Glenn was holding a pocket knife to his own throat, he was not under arrest and was not making overt threatening acts to the officer or any bystander.  Mr. Glenn was, however, first shot with beanbag rounds.  When Glenn started moving perpendicular to officers and toward an open front door of the house, apparently trying to avoid beanbag rounds, he was immediately shot with pistol rounds and killed.  There was no obvious overt threat against the life of the officers or anyone else.  The pistol rounds were all fired before the last beanbag round was fired.

Tragically, in both cases the suicidal man ignored commands of officers and was shot and killed. 

But in the Glenn v. Washington County case, the officers screamed at the suicidal man and apparently did nothing in attempt to diffuse the situation.  The officers shot Mr. Glenn when he was trying to escape the driveway to get to the front door of the house, even though Glenn was not under arrest and had not committed a crime.  The Ninth Circuit Court ruled that this case needed to proceed to trial and be decided by a jury.

However, in the Oakes v. Anderson case, the officers did everything reasonably possible to diffuse the situation and used deadly force only as a last resort in response to a reasonably perceived threat.  So the Eleventh Circuit Court ruled in favor of the officers, granting summary judgment, dismissing the case.

Case Contrast

The contrast in these two cases offers plenty to think about, including, at least:

(a) when a man is not suspected of a crime, is not under arrest and has not threatened anyone but himself, de-escalation should be considered;

–however…

 (b) some people just don’t respond to de-escalation attempts, will act irrationally and will end up in a deadly confrontation, notwithstanding the best efforts of police.  Not everything can be controlled. As one veteran SWAT officer says:  

“I tell people to worry about what you can control.  I am not in control of my opponent.  I can influence him by the things I do or say, but the decision for his reaction is ultimately his.” 

Add your comment