Our system of unequal justice was on further display last week in St. Louis, where police officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith. Stockley was accused of chasing Mr. Smith for three miles, shooting him without provocation, and then planting a gun in Mr. Smith’s car. A recording device inside the police car captured Stockley saying to his partner, shortly before the shooting: “Going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it.” With yet another police officer acquitted of shooting a black man, this time with clear evidence of intent to kill, we are left with the question: what will it take to hold police officers accountable?
Few police officers are ever charged with a crime for shooting or brutalizing citizens. We have almost a thousand police shooting deaths per year, with black men comprising 32% of the unarmed citizens shot by police (despite being only 6% of the population). Only the smallest fraction of police shootings actually results in any consequence at all, much less criminal charges. Of the ones that do yield criminal charges, it is nearly impossible to get a conviction. Excusing police killing of unarmed people is a national disgrace.
This disgrace continues unabated. Recall Philando Castile, the man who was shot and killed at a traffic stop for legally carrying a licensed gun. Since he never drew the weapon, his sole crime seems to be that he responsibly told the officer he was lawfully carrying the gun. The officer who shot him was acquitted. And remember Terence Crutcher, the unarmed black man walking alongside his disabled car with his hands in the air? He was tased and fatally shot by police officers. His death was captured on video tape that showed he was not a threat to anyone when he was killed. An Oklahoma jury returned a not guilty verdict. What about justice for Tamir Rice, an unarmed child murdered by Cleveland Police? After two trials that did not reach a verdict, all charges were dropped against the officer who gunned down Tamir within seconds of arriving at the park where the boy was playing. And let’s not forget Alton Sterling, the man who was pinned to the ground by police when an officer shot him at close range, killing him: the DOJ decided not to charge the officers with violating Mr. Sterling’s civil rights.
Why is it so hard to secure a conviction against police officers who gun down black men? A huge part of the problem is racism towards the men victimized by police violence. In the police videos from immediately before officers killed Terence Crutcher, one officer looking down on the scene from a helicopter can be heard describing Mr. Crutcher as “a bad dude” who “looks like he might be on something.” The video shows Mr. Crutcher slowly walking to his disabled car with his hands in the air. It is hard to fathom what the officer’s assessment could possibly be based on, aside from Mr. Crutcher’s race. The racist stereotyping is inescapable. It’s also present in the recent Stockley acquittal. Stockley claimed that he killed Mr. Smith because he believed Smith was reaching for a gun in his car. But the gun found at the scene had only the officer’s DNA on it, not Smith’s. It was a classic gun plant to justify the shooting. But, in acquitting the officer the judge ruled that a drug dealer not in possession of a gun would be an anomaly, so the officer’s story must have been true.
If juries and judges continue to assume that black men are inherently violent and dangerous, then what police shooting of a black man couldn’t be justified? And that’s exactly the heart of this injustice—police shooting black men is continuously presumed to be legally justified. So St. Louis rages over another police acquittal. And police violence, particularly against black men, continues. How many more senseless deaths will it take before we hold the police accountable? The answer to that question will likely never come until our country comes to terms with its long held racial stereotypes and discrimination. Until then, we will continue to dispense unequal justice.