Law & the Courts

How to Address the Problem of Police Shootings

(Joh Roman/Dreamstime)
There are no easy answers, but we can start by withholding judgment until all the facts of each case are known.

Did a black man die when a white man would have lived? That’s the question I asked myself last night as I watched one of the most heartbreaking videos I’ve ever seen. A young woman, Lavish Reynolds, started recording the video on Facebook Live moments after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, had been shot by police during what she reported was a routine traffic stop for a broken tail light. As her blood-soaked boyfriend loses consciousness right beside her, you can see the subsequent narrative of his death taking shape on the screen.

Reynolds says that Castile had a concealed-carry permit, and he was shot after following the officer’s directions to “get his ID.” According to Reynolds, he reached for his wallet and was shot multiple times. Following up with reporters Thursday morning, Reynolds provided more details:

“As he’s reaching for his back pocket wallet, he lets the officer know: ‘Officer, I have a firearm on me.’ I begin to yell, ‘But he’s licensed to carry,’” Reynolds said. “After that, he [the officer] began to take off shots: ba ba ba ba. ‘Don’t move, don’t move!’”

The officer can be heard on tape swearing — sounding distraught — and yelling, “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hands up.” The shooting itself wasn’t recorded by Reynolds. We don’t yet know if it was captured by the police.

Castile’s shooting came on the heels of the killing of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man from Baton Rouge who was shot while pinned on the ground by police. A dispatcher told officers that “a man matching Sterling’s description ‘pulled a gun’ on [a] 911 caller.” In widely shared video of the incident, police tackle Sterling after he refuses to comply with an order to “get on the ground.” While they’re apparently struggling to pin him down, one of the officers yells, “He’s got a gun” and shortly thereafter fires several shots at point-blank range. While we have two close-up bystander recordings of the event, neither video shows Sterling’s right arm, but his hands appeared to be empty when he died.

Each case should stand on its own facts, and prosecutors should neither favor nor vindictively pursue police officers under investigation.

While Castile’s death and Sterling’s death happened under different circumstances — no cop can presume that any traffic stop is entirely safe, but it’s one thing to pull a person over for a broken tail light and an entirely different thing to respond to a report that a man has “pulled a gun” on someone — both incidents raise serious questions about police conduct. Those questions should be investigated thoroughly, honestly, and with as much transparency as possible.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Not even the most unbiased and comprehensive investigation is likely to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this piece. We can investigate and determine, within reasonable margins of certainty, whether any given police shooting was legally appropriate. But we also know that police don’t shoot every single time they can shoot — just last night, Twitter came alive with photos and short videos of incidents where it appeared that white men gave police justification to use deadly force, but the officers refrained. For example, this tweet shows a white man with his hand on a gun while a police officer gestures for him to stop:

At the individual level, the answer to the question of racial bias is unknowable. I’ve been pulled over a number of times without incident, but my own experience is statistically meaningless. And if police killed African Americans every single time they knew or even suspected they were in danger, the carnage would be far, far more extensive. It’s a simple fact that police don’t shoot people of any one race every time there exists a legal justification.

#share#But are police quicker on the trigger with African Americans than they are with white people in similar circumstances? Comprehensive reporting shows that police kill disproportionately more black people than white people — but the numbers aren’t out of line with the disproportionate rates at which blacks commit violent crime. (Black Americans commit homicide at close to eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.) In other words, crime and law-enforcement actions do not break down neatly on demographic lines.

Neither statistics nor tweets can provide answers in any given, isolated incident. It is entirely possible that Philando Castile would still be alive if he was white. And, though their situations are different, the same goes for Alton Sterling. The opposite could also be true in either case. After all, police do kill hundreds of white people every year.

RELATED: The Numbers Are In: Black Lives Matter Is Wrong about Police

So what to do about a problem that is tearing at the political and cultural fabric of our nation? There are no good answers, but we can start by not reflexively taking sides. Each case should stand on its own facts, and prosecutors should neither favor nor vindictively pursue police officers under investigation. Chicago’s shameful concealment and stonewalling in the Laquan McDonald case doesn’t justify Baltimore’s unconscionable witch hunt in the Freddie Gray prosecutions.

#related#Nor is it the case that simply because not everything is about race, nothing is about race. There are racist cops, just as there are racists who occupy every other walk of life. America has made immense progress toward righting its historical wrongs and eradicating the old prejudices, but the competing movements on the radical left and alt-right who seem determined to fracture our nation along racial lines are the clearest proof yet that there remains a potential for backsliding.

Facing these forces, reasonable citizens can choose a different way: Wait on the evidence before jumping to conclusions, investigate claims of racial bias diligently and in good faith, and humbly work to correct injustice if and when it’s revealed. This approach won’t solve the problem — nothing will entirely — but it’s the best approach we have. The alternative is a future with greater strife, more misery, more tears, and more death. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who’ve already lost their lives, to make sure that future never comes.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

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