The acquittal of a Minnesota police officer who killed Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop last year was simultaneously shocking and completely predictable and expected. It is a sad reminder that we allow cops to get away with murder routinely in this society.
After all of the public scrutiny, nationwide protests and grisly videos of police shootings over the past several years, few officers are criminally charged, and when the rare case is prosecuted, hopes rise that justice will be served. More often than not, officers are not convicted, raising a question: Do divisions widen more between the police and their communities if people view the justice system as having failed than if there had been no prosecution, no deeper look, at all?
About 900 to 1,000 people are fatally shot by police officers in the United States every year, said Philip M. Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who tracks police shootings. Since 2005, when Mr. Stinson began his tally, just 29 nonfederal law enforcement officers have been convicted in on-duty shootings. Fourteen pleaded guilty, and 15 were convicted by juries. In that time, more officers — 33 — have been arrested or charged with murder or manslaughter but not convicted.
In many of these cases, questions of guilt do not hinge on who fired the fatal shot, but on what officers were thinking when they pulled the trigger.
“As soon as the officer gets on the stand and subjectively says, ‘I was fearing for my life,’ many juries are not going to convict at that point,” Mr. Stinson said. “We’ve seen it over and over again.”
In this case, Castile had a license to carry a gun. When his girlfriend was pulled over, he was in the passenger seat and volunteered to the officer that he had a gun, specifically so he would avoid a situation where the officer would be surprised. He told the cop he had a gun, the officer told him not to reach for the gun and asked him to give him his driver’s license. He specifically told the officer that he was not reaching for his gun but was getting his license when the officer shot him seven times. All of this was recorded by his girlfriend and the jury was able to listen to that recording.But as usual, all the cop has to say is “I was afraid” and they can get away with murder — literally. This despite all the evidence that shows such a claim to be unjustified. But even if he had reason to fear, that wouldn’t mean the proper response is to unload half his clip into the guy. It’s still extremely unnecessary force. It’s still police brutality. But we give cops every benefit of every doubt, doubly and triply so when the victim is a black man.
And where is the NRA on this? If this were a white man who was shot, they would be blowing a gasket over it. A licensed gun owner with a conceal/carry permit who informs an officer that he has a gun and is behaving 100% legally gets gunned down while doing nothing threatening? They’d be talking about a second civil war. But it’s a black man, so the response is virtual silence. They released a bland statement calling the situation “troublesome” and promising to say more once the facts were known. Well now they are fully known and no one has been held accountable for the murder of a law-abiding citizen who did nothing wrong at all, in fact did everything right in that situation in order to avoid what happened. Dead silence from the NRA.
Why? Because black lives simply do not matter in this society, certainly not to the extent that white lives do. We do not place the same value on their lives, their liberties or their mutual humanity. We view them as less, not just informally but officially. It’s baked into our deeply racist criminal justice system and in most other institutions in this society. It’s wrong. It’s barbaric. And it must be stopped.