Last night, Jordan Edwards–a 15 year old football player and outstanding student–was shot and killed by a police officer in Balch Srings, Texas. Even as the story continues to unfold, a few things are clear. In some ways, this one is different.
But in some fundamental ways, it’s the same story we hear far too often. Or rather, a story that happens far too often, but about which we hear far too little–because the majority of police killings (especially of young black men) do not turn into viral news stories, or even news stories at all.
Here are a few initial ways in which the story of Jordan Edward’s death already appears to differ from other stories of police shootings.
- For starters, this incident made the news. That exposure alone makes this story more the exception than the rule. By this time tomorrow, Jordan Edwards will be a household name. Familiar in the most heart-breaking way possible, to be sure. But still familiar. Naming the victim, in a story such as this, and granting broad public exposure, increases accountability on the part of law enforcement.
- The body cam. Forces in many cities have argued that officer body cams are expensive and ineffective, rendering them impractical. But in this case, body cam footage altered the course of the story within just a few hours of the incident. (The officer who shot Edwards initially said the car was aggressively backing towards the officers; but video shows, in fact, that the car is driving away at the time the officer opened fire). This footage changes the whole narrative, both within the police force and the public eye; making it far more likely that some measure of justice might be served for the victim’s family.
- Not only did that body cam provide evidence to refute the officer’s initial claim–authorities within the local police force made a statement immediately, redacting the prior statement. The attempt at transparency also distinguishes this story from other police killings.
- The media profiles the victim in a positive light. Rather than featuring an old mug shot and a list of priors, the media is painting a picture of a bright young man, good student, and great athlete. Granted, all these things are true. But that does not always keep the news outlets from running to any fragment of incriminating history to paint a shady past for the victim in these instances. Maybe that tide is beginning to turn at long last… The voices included in stories of Jordan Edwards life –across the board– are voices of disbelief, heartbreak, and an entire community in mourning.
These are hopeful signs that there might be some consequences for the officer in question this time; that the criminal justice system might (in some corners) be starting to take an inward look, and dismantle some of its own problematic culture; and that the nature of public discourse is shifting towards a more nuanced look at police violence, where it exists.
Even so, there are still some critical ways in which this story bears echoes of the many, many others of its kind. For instance:
- “He was not a thug…” This is a quote from the father of one of Edward’s friends. The implication? The others are thugs. The unspoken yet fully loaded meaning here is that this young man “didn’t deserve this,” because he had “great parents” and “was not a thug.” As if having great parents is a prerequisite for not being shot by an officer as you leave a party. And let’s also not dismiss the loaded nature of the word “thug,” largely thrown about these days as the new N-word. The quick bystander judgment about the worthiness of the victim’s life –however well-intended the sentiment in this case–is a common thread in the stories of black men shot by police.
- It is the next day, and no arrests have been made. In spite of hard evidence.
- Finally, there is one critically tragic way in which this story reads like all the others: In the end, a young black man is dead, at the hands of an officer of the peace.
And when we say “all the others…” Police killed 308 black Americans in 2016. And 105 so far in 2017. In about 97% of cases, the officer involved is not charged with a crime. Granted, there are some cases in which the officer can legitimately prove having had reason to shoot, and having followed protocol.
Some, maybe. But not 97%.
Maybe the life and death of Jordan Edwards, and those left to grieve him, will be another story. Maybe this one is different. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new conversation; or at least the slow, gradual shifting of the old one. Either way, maybe we can lean towards hope. Because, on this very same day, former officer Michael Slager pled guilty to federal charges in the 2015 killing of Walter Scott. In that instance, as well, there was video footage to dispute some of the officer’s claims… and those images changed everything.
I will not minimize the heartbreak and the gross injustice of either of these incidents–or of the countless others where such truth may never be uncovered. But I will lean towards hope that this story of Jordan Edwards is a sign of a story that’s changing– an arc that bends towards justice, that shines a light on our broken ways, and that embraces the full humanity of every innocent life ended by violence. “Great parents” or not.