Running Out of Excuses: The All Too Familiar Narrative of Police Shootings

On June 16, in St. Paul, Minnesota, a decision was handed down in the trial of Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile in the summer of 2016. The facts of the case were hardly in dispute: after pulling Mr. Castile over, Officer Yanez asked to see his driver’s license. To avoid any confusion, Castile then told the officer that he was armed and was carrying a gun in his pants pocket. However, when Castile complied with the officer’s command and reached for his I.D., he was summarily shot seven times in front of his fiancée and four-year-old daughter. The immediate aftermath of this was captured on Facebook Live by Castile’s fiancée, sparking a national outcry in a political climate that was already rife with similar incidents. What was even more stunning about this incident was Mr. Castile’s compliance with what most law enforcement would say is proper procedure in that situation. Despite Mr. Castile’s cooperation, his killer was acquitted of any and all charges stemming from his incident by a jury of his peers and remains a free man. His acquittal dispels yet another myth in African Americans’ longstanding and contentious relationship with American law enforcement: the idea that complying with one’s local law enforcement officers erases racial bias and will always lead to a fair and safe interaction. In recent years there has been an increased reliance on these ideas, shifting the blame for similar shootings to factors other than race. However, as questionable and even fatal interactions for African-Americans with law enforcement disprove more of these excuses, apologists for police departments are running out of answers.

One of the most racially charged of these excuses is the notion that these incidents are only happening to African Americans who choose a criminal lifestyle that puts them at odds with law enforcement. We saw the opposite of that when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot within seconds of officers arriving at a park while he was playing with a toy gun. Rice had no criminal record nor was he involved in any illegal activity, and yet the officer who shot him made no attempt to communicate with him from a distance or even to ask him to drop the “weapon.” When we see an officer making the decision to shoot a twelve-year-old to death in a matter of seconds, it is imperative that we ask ourselves whether or not Rice would have been afforded those potentially lifesaving warnings if he had been anything other than a black male.

Tamir Rice’s death and the fact that his killer was not convicted of any crime only further illustrate the point that in a country that prides itself on the presumption of innocence, many African Americans are facing an undue bias based solely on skin tone.

The next excuse that has been offered to placate detractors of the criminal justice system is that the facts surrounding these shootings are complex and, in the heat of the moment, officers must make calls that civilians simply do not understand. The country watched as Walter Scott was gunned down from behind while he tried to run away from a police officer in South Carolina. We then watched as that same officer who claimed to have performed CPR on Scott in the immediate aftermath of the shooting did no such thing and instead handcuffed Scott’s body and threw a Taser next to him to make the shooting look more justifiable. In fact, this notion has been consistently discredited for decades now. The deaths of Alton Sterling, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, and Jerame Reid were all caught on camera and none of those instances featured any of the victims using any sort of weapon or firearm when confronted by the police. We now are living in an age when officers’ actions are becoming ever more visible to the entirety of the public.

But I would argue that no excuse has gained more traction than the theory that if these people would just comply with law enforcement, none of this would happen. Unlike the others, this one contains some level of legitimacy. While it is obviously legally incorrect and morally reprehensible to argue that the penal retribution for refusing to comply with law enforcement should be an immediate execution, it is fair to say that the safest approach would always be to comply with law enforcement in any sort of traffic stop. Advocates for this theory might argue that it is only African Americans’ distrust for law enforcement and their refusal to act properly that cause these deaths. And perhaps that is why the Castile case is so crucial in dispelling this myth. Mr. Castile did everything right by any number of standards; in fact, one could argue that he went above what was required. According to Bryan Strawser of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, people carrying weapons have no obligation to disclose their possession of a firearm to law enforcement. Strawser recommends that gun owners move slowly and follow all directions given by policemen. In Castile’s case, he made the officer aware that he was carrying a firearm and that he was licensed to do so, he was in possession of his license and registration, and he made no effort to do anything but comply with the Minnesota law enforcement official who had stopped him. For as long as police brutality has existed as a social issue, the prevailing defense used by officers has been that the officer in question feared for his or her own safety. During the Rodney King trial of the mid-1990s, every officer in question made it clear that he believed that the man who they were beating would surely have inflicted severe bodily harm on the four of them had they stopped at any point during their attack because they viewed him as a “PCP crazed giant.” Despite the fact that King never tested positive for PCP, the lawyers in that case argued that what was more important was how King was perceived by the officers. Officer Yanez told the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that he was fearing for his life and his partner’s life, and it is certainly possible that he was actually afraid. Similarly, it is certainly possible that the officer who shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice while he was holding a toy felt threatened. However, it is more important to pay attention to why these officers felt threatened.

I would posit that these individuals were viewed as threats largely due to the color of their skin. While some might argue that there are always other factors at play besides race, it is important to note that the fact that race serves as an influencing factor in an officer’s decision-making process in any capacity is inherently unfair. Furthermore, when officers across the country use someone’s race as an implicating trait, what we are left with is systemic racial bias. According to one Washington Post report, African-Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be shot by the police as their white counterparts are. In 2008, Ian Ayres, professor at Yale Law School, noted that African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police officers and searched for drugs despite the fact that “hit rate”—the rate at which illegal contraband would be found—was higher among whites. Similarly, Vox reported in 2014 that SWAT team raids disproportionally target black neighborhoods, despite the fact that the same Vox report showed that 62 percent of raids are drug related and blacks and whites consume drugs at roughly the same rate. What all of these studies reveal is that there is a very real and at times overbearing bias against African Americans in the U.S. Criminal Justice System. A study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice looked at 1,846 use-of-force incidents to determine whether the racial aspects of force are consistent with the implicit-bias or counter-bias perspectives. In this study, “implicit bias” was taken to mean that officers’ biases would produce a greater tendency to use force against black subjects, while “counter-bias” represented the idea that officers would use lesser force against Blacks, due to officers’ concerns about the consequences of using force against racial or ethnic minorities. The study found that officers’ use of force was consistent with implicit bias in several areas concerning use of force. For example, officers were more likely to use Tasers with black suspects as opposed to non-blacks, and officers were especially more likely to use force against African Americans in high-crime areas. The study found that the negative information an officer is presented with (such as stories about the violence and danger that officers might encounter on the job) is more powerful than the positive information, which is why it is increasingly hard for officers to practice de-escalation tactics when they have been bombarded with increasingly negative and exaggerated images about how dangerous the community they are policing is.

This sort of “implicit bias” manifests itself in a departure from the fair and equitable policing we expect from officers across the country. It is by no means an issue that only exists among police officers; it affects and strains individuals across a broad spectrum of professions, but the effects that it can have on law enforcement are particularly gruesome. An officer who views African Americans as particularly violent or less likely to cooperate will then be more likely to implement unnecessary force. If this is the case, then it becomes the job of the citizen encountering that officer to diffuse the situation from the start and overcome that bias, and what we have seen is that historically, that does not always happen, and the results are often lethal. Implicit bias and the “us versus them” mentality that it creates were on full display in the Philando Castile case because of the training Officer Yanez received from the state of Minnesota. James Densely, an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and the author of Minnesota’s Criminal Justice System, believes that Minnesota’s officer training endangers civilians by stressing the key principle of officer survival over every other aspect of policing. Densely points out that Minnesota police officers are largely educated by retired officers who teach that policing is an incredibly dangerous profession despite the fact that most officers go through their career without ever firing their weapon. Densely writes:

“The fact is, policing is not especially dangerous, compared with, say, work in logging or construction, or driving a taxi, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the 2000s, crime has declined and with it the risk of line-of-duty deaths. Indeed, police officers are many times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by a criminal. But instructors teach what they know (or were themselves taught), perpetuating the 1990s ‘warrior’ culture of police that painted police officers as soldiers at ‘war’ with crime, drugs and criminal gangs.”

When one also considers the fact that officers in Minnesota receive on average about 50 hours of firearms training and about 5 hours of de-escalation training, it is no wonder that officers feel like their safest option is to fire their weapon. Dr. Joshua Correll, a psychologist at the University of Colorado who has explored implicit racial bias in a series of laboratory studies since 2000, supports this theory. He developed and tested a paradigm that he refers to as “the police officer’s dilemma,” using a first-person-shooter video game. Participants are presented with images of young men, white and black, holding either guns or non-threatening innocuous objects such as cellphones or soda cans. The goal is to shoot armed targets, but to refrain from shooting unarmed targets.

The researchers found that participants are more likely to shoot armed targets more often and more quickly if they are black rather than white, and refrain from shooting more often when the target is white. The most common mistakes are shooting an unarmed black target and failing to shoot an armed white target. Correll then conducted the same experiment on actual police officers. He found evidence of bias in those officers’ reaction times: they reacted more quickly to armed black targets and unarmed white targets. He also found that officers who worked in units that targeted gangs were more likely to exhibit racial bias in their decision to shoot.

Officer Yanez told the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that he was fearing for his life and his partner’s life, and it may be true that he was afraid, the same way it may be true that the officer who shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice while he was holding a toy felt threatened. Still, it is more important to pay attention to why these officers felt threatened. Countless studies have shown that officers like Yanez are brought into a culture that exacerbates existing biases and makes them more likely to use a force when no threat exists. There is a long and complex history as to why police officers view African-American males as threatening forces warranting lethal force. And despite all of the strides that have been made, the issue of how to ease tensions between African Americans and law enforcement has not yet been resolved.

Today, many on both sides continue to eschew the heart of the dispute between law enforcement and the African-American community. What has become increasingly clear is that this is not an issue that should be addressed by only black people or only white people. We are now all tasked with the issue of eradicating these biases. The ultimate goal is to build safe communities with trusted law enforcement officials who feel personally connected to the well-being of their citizens. It is not a task any of us asked for, but it is nonetheless essential that we challenge it if we hope to preserve any sliver of the Constitution’s commitment that all of us are entitled to equal protection under the law.

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