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Opinion

Op-Ed: Horrific videos aren’t solving police shootings, but better training might

In this image made from July 6, 2016, video captured by a camera in the squad car of St. Anthony Pol
Video captured by a camera in the squad car of St. Anthony Police officer Jeronimo Yanez after the officer shot into the vehicle at Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn. on July 6, 2016.
(St. Anthony Police Department via Associated Press)

In a seemingly endless stream of police shooting videos, the case of Philando Castile stands out.

The Minnesota man bled to death before our eyes last summer. The image was live-streamed by his girlfriend, while a police officer held the pair at gunpoint and her 4-year-old daughter watched from the back seat of their car.

The uncensored anguish of those moments, viewed by millions on Facebook, was supposed to be a game changer in a national conversation about dead black men and trigger-happy cops.

But one year later, the game hasn’t changed. Despite damning videos and police dash-cam accounts, officers are rarely held accountable for what looks like criminal use of lethal force.

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Despite damning videos and police dash-cam accounts, officers are rarely held accountable for what looks like criminal use of lethal force.

The officer who killed Castile was found not guilty of manslaughter on June 16. Jeronimo Yanez told the jury he feared for his life when Castile reached for what the girlfriend said was his license and Yanez presumed was a gun.

A few days later, a jury in Milwaukee acquitted an officer of reckless homicide. Video showed him shooting a suspect at point-blank range, after the man had dropped his gun and was lying on the ground.

That same week, a Cincinnati jury couldn’t agree on a verdict in the second trial of a university cop charged with manslaughter and murder for shooting an unarmed motorist in the head during a traffic stop.

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And in May, Tulsa Officer Betty Shelby was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed man who was high on drugs and standing alongside his car.

In all four cases, the deaths were captured on police videos. It turns out that video evidence isn’t the magic remedy for police shootings we’d like it to be. But it does give us insight into what is needed: better training to prevent sloppy, unwise and ultimately dangerous policing.

The officers on trial — Latino, black, white, male and female — all had the same rationale for shooting: They feared for their lives and responded as they’d been trained to do. But even jurors who voted for acquittal were troubled by the tactical blunders, poor judgment and inconsistencies the videos revealed.

After the Shelby trial in Tulsa, the foreman wrote a four-page letter conveying the jury’s distress: “The jury wonders and some believe that she had other options available to subdue Mr. Crutcher.”

Shelby testified that her tactical training “didn’t allow for a Taser” at the point she pulled her gun. But just as Shelby was firing the bullet that killed Crutcher, an officer behind her was firing a Taser round.

Many of the Tulsa jurors, despite their final decision, “could never get comfortable with the concept of Betty Shelby being blameless for Mr. Crutcher’s death,” the foreman’s letter said. Several jurors cried in the courtroom when the “not guilty” verdict was read.

Still, trial after trial has shown that jurors are inordinately reluctant to convict if that means second-guessing the officer’s account.

The multiracial juries in Minnesota, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Tulsa were trying to do the right thing but were hamstrung by guidelines that focus only on the moment of the shooting, and require them to divine what a “reasonable” officer in that moment might have done.

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Yanez, for example, must have seemed reasonable enough, as he wept on the stand and told the jury, “I thought I was going to die…. I had no other choice.”

But he did have choices. He could have ordered Castile to place his hands on the steering wheel or get out of the car, once Castile had politely announced, “Sir, I do have to tell you I have a firearm on me.” Instead Yanez melted down, began shrieking and fired off seven shots.

Castile died trapped between contradictory commands — “Do you have your license and insurance?” “Don’t pull it out!” — from a young officer who stopped the car because he thought Castile’s “wide-set nose” matched the nose of a black robbery suspect, then viewed Castile’s every move through that criminal prism.

That dysfunctional encounter reflects issues endemic to many police departments: implicit bias, inexperience, a warrior culture, inadequate training of officers. Often those factors don’t come to light until agencies are forced to conduct shooting postmortems.

The Los Angeles Police Department — which registered more fatal police shootings in the last two years than any force in the country — has taken a necessary and laudable first step toward a culture shift.

Last year, the department’s oversight commission found tactical errors in half of the 46 police shootings it reviewed. This year the commission adopted a new use-of-force policy directing officers to try to defuse tense encounters without using deadly force. Officers can be punished if their poor choices lead to someone getting shot.

It’s too soon to know how much effect the policy will have. Other cities with similar commitments have seen mixed results.

In Salt Lake City, police shootings virtually stopped. But in Seattle, where de-escalation training began two years ago, a mentally ill mother of four was shot to death in June when she called to report a robbery at her home and met police with a knife. The officer who killed her had left his mandated Taser in his locker; it took up too much space on his weapons belt, he said.

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Improved training must go beyond directives and address the role of implicit bias in the judgments officers make.

Race can shape the actions of officers in even the most anodyne situations. A recent study of body camera footage in Oakland found officers treated black motorists with less respect in routine traffic stops. And it didn’t matter whether the officer was white, Latino, Asian or black.

Use-of-force statistics reflect more lethal repercussions: A third of the people killed by police during traffic stops are black. The death rate for young black men at the hands of police is five times higher than for white men of the same age.

Police officers have a difficult and dangerous job. We rely on them to do the right thing in extreme situations to keep themselves and others safe. But as we’ve seen in fuzzy videos and unsatisfying verdicts, if we want to avoid legally sanctioned but morally tragic deaths, we need officers who are temperamentally suited to their jobs, culturally aware and appropriately trained.

Unless we overcome the stereotypes that research shows we all carry around in our heads, “dangerous” will be the default label that black bodies wear, and fear will drive the choices that police officers make.

Sandy Banks is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

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