Campus Police Shoot Unarmed, Naked Student
A naked student was shot to death by a campus police officer at the University of South Alabama earlier this month, prompting questions of police misconduct and raising the possibility of a wrongful death suit against the officer.
Gilbert Thomas Collar, 18, was killed after he approached a campus police station late one Saturday night and began banging on the window. The school police officer who came out to confront Collar described a “a muscular, nude man who was acting erratically.”
According to the university’s statement on the incident, Collar repeatedly approached the officer and yelled threats at him. “When the individual continued to rush toward the officer in a threatening manner and ignored the officer’s repeated commands to stop, the officer fired one shot with his police sidearm, which struck the chest of the assailant,” the statement said. “The individual fell to the ground, but he got up once more and continued to challenge the officer further before collapsing and expiring.”
The school has a security tape of the incident, but has not released it to the public. Students have speculated whether Collar was drunk or on other drugs, but the larger question being asked is why the officer had to use his gun against a naked and obviously unarmed teenager.
The family’s attorney, Jere Beasley, said that the shooting appeared unjustified, telling CNN, “There is nothing on the surveillance tape that justifies the use of deadly force.” So far, no lawsuits have been filed pending the outcome of a school investigation.
“There would be two broad sets of claims that could be filed,” Andrews says. “There’s your typical federal civil rights claim that he was denied his Fourth Amendment right against search and seizure when he was subjected to excessive force or deadly force that was inappropriate.”
The family could also file in state court, in which defendants might be subject to different immunities and liabilities from the federal court. “The university is absolutely immune,” the attorney says. “You could sue the officer, and potentially if there was some reason in his background that he shouldn’t have been hired, you could potentially file suit against the supervisor.”
To win their suit, attorneys would have to show that the officer acted unreasonably in his application of deadly force. The guidelines for deadly force were laid out in the 1985 Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner, in which a Memphis police officer shot and killed a fleeing burglar. “There’s only two circumstances under which you can use deadly force – if the person presents an imminent threat of deadly harm to the officer, or if they present an imminent threat of deadly harm to someone else,” says Andrews.
The University of Southern Alabama case is unusual in that most cases of police shootings involve a suspect holding a gun, or a knife, or at least appearing to. In other situations, the cops have been found justified to shoot the driver of a car because the vehicle could be used as a deadly weapon. But a naked man might be more difficult to present as a threat.
“If somebody is unarmed and you know they’re unarmed, what kind of physical unarmed threat do they have to provide to make it deadly?” Andrews says. “An unarmed person simply with their hands can present a deadly force, but I think it’s pretty difficult.”
Should the case come before a jury, the officer will
have to justify exactly why he felt compelled to shoot the naked freshman. “He can’t just say, I’m a scaredy-cat, that’s why I shot him,” the attorney notes. “He can say here are the things I knew, and any reasonable officer in that situation would have done the same.”