COMMENTARY: Watching the video Diamond Reynolds filmed of her boyfriend Philando Castile bleeding to death is traumatic, to say the least.
Castile had just been shot by Jeronimo Yanez, a St. Anthony, Minn. police officer, during a traffic stop on July 6. As Reynolds began filming, she said they were pulled over because of a broken tail light, that Castile had a license to carry a gun, and that he let the officer know he had a firearm but was reaching for his wallet.
Then Yanez shot Castile multiple times, with Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter in the backseat.
I wept the first time I watched that video — for Castile, for Reynolds and her daughter, and also for Yanez. Thirty seconds into the video, while Reynolds is explaining what’s happening to a live audience on Facebook, Yanez loses it.
“Ma’am, keep your hands where they are,” the officer yells, his gun trained on Reynolds.
“I will sir. No worries. I will,” she replies.
“Fuck!” an obviously panicking Yanez screams. His breathing is labored.
“He just shot his arm off,” Reynolds continues. “We got pulled over on Larpenteur.”
“I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hand off it!” Yanez yells.
“He had, you told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license,” Reynolds says. “Oh my God, please don’t tell me he’s dead. Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that.”
During the exchange, Castile is slumped to the side in the passenger’s seat in between Reynolds and Yanez. His white T-shirt is stained red and his right arm is covered in blood. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Time will tell whether Yanez will be charged in Castile’s death.
As I wrote earlier this week, I recently participated in a law enforcement use-of-force training offered by the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department. Throughout the training, as I learned about the realities of what police officers face and the legalities that govern their conduct, Yanez’s emotion came to mind.
He didn’t become a police officer to kill someone, I thought over and over. He didn’t want this to happen.
I believe structural racism is real in America. We need to work to reduce all officer-involved shootings, and we can’t do that without acknowledging that people of color — Native Americans and black people in particular — are more likely to be killed by police than others. And we need to examine the reasons for that.
I’m glad people are filming officer-involved shootings with their phones. I believe police should wear body cameras. Reports into officer-involved shootings should be made public and put online by every district attorney’s office in this country — as the district attorney already does in Bernalillo County — so we can review the evidence that leads prosecutors to determine whether a shooting was legally justified.
I also want to acknowledge that police officers have damn hard jobs. That was clear at last week’s training put on by Major Brent Barlow and Detective Larry Louick. We watched video in which an officer hesitated when he was fired upon at during a traffic stop, and we heard him die. We watched another recording that showed an officer get attacked by a larger man during a stop; even after being shot, the man overpowered the officer and took his gun away. We watched other officers make what I consider a bad decision to try to force a suicidal man locked in a bathroom by himself to drop a knife, and they ended up escalating a situation in which the man was threatening no one but himself until the man charged one of them.
One of the officers in that video can be seen blurting out an expletive after shooting the man to death. The officer’s actions in that instance were wrong and horrific, in my opinion, but I don’t believe he wanted to kill anyone.
Officers have to make split-second decisions. Louick talked about a traffic stop several years ago where he had his gun trained on a suspected murderer. The man fidgeted with his hands and pants before leaning back into his vehicle. Louick could have fired on that man but didn’t — and he clearly considers himself lucky to be alive. Officers later found a gun and bullets in the car, and the man told police he was trying to load the gun to fire on Louick.
The point? “Hesitation gets cops killed,” Louick told us. Barlow said he has “been to officers’ funerals where they did nothing but walk out the door and they’re never coming home again.”
There’s lots of case law that dictates how officers should act during situations where they might use force. One point that stuck in my mind comes from the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor. Basically, what matters most is whether an officer’s actions are “objectively reasonable” given what the officer knows about the circumstances unfolding in front of him or her. Hindsight is often enlightening, but the law says we must judge officers’ actions by what they knew and acknowledge that they often must make quick decisions in tense and rapidly evolving situations.
That’s a hard reality to swallow, especially given some of the videos we’ve seen in recent years. But it’s still reality. It’s not reasonable to legally judge an officer’s actions based on information or a viewpoint he or she didn’t have.
Police officers do make mistakes. And there are without a doubt some bad officers who need to be weeded out and, in some cases, prosecuted. There are also structural problems with the way too many law enforcement agencies operate. That last point is why the work of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing is so important.
Still, the vast majority of officer-involved shootings are later ruled legally justified for a reason: They meet tests put in place by the U.S. Supreme Court. Some of us scoff at that idea. At times that includes me. My job requires skepticism.
It’s not just my job though. We have good reason to be upset. Sim Gill, the district attorney in Salt Lake City, Utah, told me several years ago that a historic lack of transparency and accountability are among the issues that have contributed to an erosion of the public’s trust in law enforcement. His words hit home: In 2010, when now-Gov. Susana Martinez was Doña Ana County district attorney, she and the City of Las Cruces refused to release an investigative report that led her to conclude a fatal officer-involved shooting was justified.
When you withhold information, especially a report state law says is public, I and many others will assume you have something to hide. Fortunately, Las Cruces releases such reports to the public today.
Still, the fact that such shootings occur “cannot itself be an indictment of law enforcement in general,” Gill told me. “There are many men in local law enforcement who do their job honorably and do their job professionally, do their job competently, and with an eye toward public service.”
That’s true of most, but not all, of the police officers I’ve encountered in my personal life and as a journalist. Major Barlow, who is retiring this month, told us at the training that he’s never fired his gun or used a baton in an encounter with a citizen. He said that’s true of most officers.
Gill, who testified before President Barack Obama’s task force, told me in his experience officer-involved shootings are justified 97-98 percent of the time. But it’s important to improve the system so the other 2-3 percent are identified and dealt with accordingly, he said.
While I’m not certain the percentage of shootings that should be legally justified is that high, Gill makes an important point: We can, and should, work to implement law enforcement policies that aim to reduce such shootings. We must increase transparency and accountability to ensure shootings are thoroughly investigated and those that aren’t justified are dealt with. Sometimes police officers must be prosecuted.
We must also dig deeper. If we really want to reduce officer-involved shootings, we have to address the issues that lead to people being on edge and desperate — society’s ills, the most challenging problems of our time, including poverty, mental illness, addiction, and structural racism.
Often, by the time an officer and a person dealing with difficult circumstances face each other, it’s too late. The structural injustices built into our society have already taken their toll.
Then hurting people encounter police officers. Someone ends up dead. The system legally justifies the government’s taking of a life. And we all go about our business.
That’s often not the fault of the police. It’s our fault — all of us in this society who, with our tax dollars, our votes, our actions, our silence, or sometimes our overt support, allow our society to continue being unjust.
Police officers stand on the front lines of our failures.
“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown recently said after five of his department’s officers were killed. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem, let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Killings of cops and by cops are too often sparked by our society’s deeper problems. We need to grieve for the men and women affected by these horrible shootings — from people like Castile and Reynolds, his girlfriend, to Yanez, the officer who shot Castile. In some instances, we also need to seek justice.
But we can’t stop there. Let’s work more tenaciously and collaboratively to combat the problems that plague our society. We owe it to our police officers, and to the people they encounter while doing their jobs.