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On September 10, 2014, Darrien Hunt, who had a history of emotional problems and had shown signs of mental illness, was seen walking with a samurai sword down a busy street in Saratoga Springs, Utah. According to his family, he carried the sword as part of a costume, and under Utah law he had a right to carry any sharp-edged weapon he wished.
A concerned observer called 911, and two police officers approached Hunt. The conversation started off friendly, but after one of the officers repeatedly asked Hunt to put down his sword, Hunt either took a swipe at the officers or held the sword over his head and jumped at them. (The officers gave investigators conflicting accounts of what Hunt did with his sword and which officer he was moving toward when he did it.) The officers responded by shooting at Hunt, who ran away carrying the sword. The officers ran after him, and one of them shot Hunt dead from behind.
Hunt’s family is suing the officers and the city of Saratoga Springs. Many facts about the incident are contested—in particular, whether Hunt had already dropped his sword, and whether he was tripping or had fallen down, when the fatal shots were fired. Witness testimony is inconsistent, and lawyers for both sides declined to answer questions about the ambiguities. But, assuming for the sake of argument that something like the officers’ accounts is accurate, what difference should it have made that Hunt was still on his feet and carrying a sword when he died?
Utah’s relevant statutes apply with exactness the rules in Tennessee v. Garner, but, interestingly, not even the officers’ own attorney is defending them on the grounds that Hunt had threatened them with a weapon and so satisfied the Garner standard. In a press statement, she said that, “had Hunt dropped the sword before fleeing, the officers would have continued chasing him on foot” rather than shooting him. Thus she tacitly conceded that it matters whether Hunt was still armed when he died.
Others likewise stressed the imminence of the threat that Hunt allegedly posed. Jeff Buhman, the Utah County prosecutor who declined to file charges against the officers, said: “I don’t find it reasonable to require that [officers] permit a person who is armed and has most immediately attempted to wound or kill police officers to escape into a presently populated retail area.” (Hunt was fleeing in the direction of a Walmart.) And Matthew Schauerhamer, the officer who killed Hunt, explained to investigators that “there was no way around it. I couldn’t keep letting him run around with a frickin’ sword.” Hunt might “hack the first person he saw.”
Some police departments have made imminence central to their use-of-deadly-force policies, thereby setting a stricter standard than Garner does. The New York Police Department’s patrol guide, for example, says that “police officers shall not discharge their firearms to subdue a fleeing felon who presents no threat of imminent death or serious physical injury to themselves or another person present.” Police policy in Philadelphia is similar.