‘Devaluing Black Bodies’: How Police-Shooting Videos Can Thwart the Search for Justice

Eyewitness videos of shootings have helped bring accountability to law enforcement. But they can also traumatize African Americans who see themselves and those they love in these fatal encounters.

On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, 37, died after police in Louisiana tackled and shot him outside the convenience store where he was selling CDs. The following day, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in Minnesota during a traffic stop.

The horrific eyewitness videos of both shootings immediately went viral on social media. One social media post of the leaked video of the 2016 death of Delrawn Small, shot by an off-duty New York City police officer in a traffic dispute, has been viewed more than 70,000 times.

Historically, such searing images have helped gather support for legal reforms against racial discrimination and state violence against African American people. During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, photographers captured images of African-American demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and law enforcement officials wielding billy clubs and fire hoses.

rodney king

A video of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of Los Angeles police sparked outrage and riots in 1991.

A generation later, in 1991, video of Rodney King being clubbed and kicked by police was broadcast on national and world news.

In the digital age, however, images of police violence have never been as widespread. No longer confined to mainstream news coverage, these incidents are on our Facebook and Twitter feeds instantly and continually: police firing at Walter Scott as he bolts away; five-year-old Kodi Gaines telling his mother “They trying to kill us” moments before police shot and killed her and wounded him in their apartment; Eric Garner pleading “I can’t breathe” as New York City officers gripped him in a chokehold.

With the ubiquity of smartphones and dash and body cameras, there is ample footage to expose police violence and grab the nation’s attention. In a virtually unlimited digital space, the images spread fast and far. Footage has refuted police accounts, revealed crucial facts withheld from families of victims, and sparked campaigns for justice and reform.

“The racial justice movement against state violence would not have accelerated at the quick pace that it did without these videos,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Yet because the images of police violence are so pervasive, they inflict a unique harm on viewers, particularly African Americans, who see themselves and those they love in these fatal encounters.

This recognition becomes a form of violence in and of itself—and even more so when justice is denied.

“Linked Fate”

Social scientists have a theory about “linked fate”: In the African American community, individual life chances are recognized as inextricably tied to the race as a whole. So when black people watch a video of police violence against another black person, they see themselves or their loved ones in that person’s place, knowing that the same fateful encounter could very well happen to them.

“It’s an image now stuck in your head forever,” said Monnica Williams, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut who specializes in race-based trauma. “You carry that horror around with you.”

Viewing such images, various studies show, induces stress, fear, frustration, anger, and anxiety. There is also preliminary evidence suggesting that these images could lead to a cascading series of physical ailments, including eating and sleeping disorders, high blood pressure, and heart problems.

Williams said that viewers also start to think differently about their world. They feel their future is limited, while any symbol of the police can impart a sense of fear and dread.

Khalil Muhammad

Khalil Muhammad courtesy Radcliffe-Harvard.edu

The images “remind them of the cheapness of black life,” Muhammad said.

This feeling deepens when these videos showing violent black death are treated by the media as death porn or perverse entertainment.

“To just have black bodies laying out on the street,” Williams said, “like roadkill for everybody to see—this is dehumanizing and traumatic.”

There is also concern that viewers might eventually become inured to these images, indelible as they are, which might dampen efforts to hold accountable the police officers and the criminal justice system. Conversely, such repeated footage can also make some viewers so piercingly aware of police violence that they instinctively disengage from the police rather than risk facing them.

Blaming the Victim

It is not only videos of police violence that traumatize black viewers, but also the response from commenters once the footage has been posted.

On social media, some users blame the victim in “why didn’t he just…” or “she should have just …” admonishments. Some white Americans “don’t understand, see, or appreciate our reality,” said Williams of the University of Connecticut.

“They walk around in a very privileged space so they don’t even see racism that’s happening in front of them.”

The result, Williams said, is that “they are constantly hurting us.” And a seemingly innocuous response, or no response at all from friends, to a video of police violence on social media can carry over into everyday life, causing some black Americans to mask their pain and anger in spaces such as the office or a dinner party.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states and the District of Columbia have laws for body cameras. But in some states, to the frustration of impacted family members, activists, and local politicians, such footage is not public record, or local governments can limit how much footage is released.

In some cases, it is clear why police would want to keep their behavior hidden.

After body-cam footage was posted of a BART officer in West Oakland fatally shooting 28-year-old Sahleem Tindle three times in the back last January, as he wrestled on the ground with another man, it has been viewed more than 10,000 times. The media had reported that police initially said Tindle had been wielding a gun.

Still, Tindle’s mother, Yolanda Banks-Reed, told me, “I don’t just want likes and shares, I want help.”

Some videos that refute police accounts have aided in indictments and convictions. In August 2018, Roy Oliver, a police officer in Texas who shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for Edwards’s murder. Police camera footage played a key role in the trial: Edwards and four other high-schoolers were driving away from what a 911-caller had described as a rowdy house party in a Dallas suburb when Oliver fired five shots into the teens’ car.

Before his arrest, Oliver said that their vehicle had backed toward his partner, and that he feared for his partner’s life. But the footage played for jurors showed the car backing up then driving away, past Oliver and his partner. One leaked clip showed Edwards’s stepbrother exiting the car with his hands up pleading with officers: “Please help us. He’s dead. Please don’t shoot me.”

Still, the videos may not have been the decisive factor in the court case. During the trial, Oliver’s partner essentially testified against him, saying he did not fear for his life, and did not think he would be hit by the teens’ car.

Few Substantial Reforms

Ultimately, Williams said, video accounts alone have brought about few, if any, substantial police reforms. They have brought widespread awareness that implicit racial bias indeed exists within police departments. However, that basic fact is now bitterly, painfully clear, and the question is what comes next for America, in terms of actual change.

“This isn’t rocket science,” said Muhammad of Harvard. “We certainly don’t want more of them to strengthen the case.”

The advent of new technologies has allowed us to chronicle and testify to a horribly entrenched truth: The American justice system continually, daily devalues black bodies. It has only been forced to reckon with the reality of its own bias when a flash of video shows, in soul-wrenching detail, the ease with which a life can be extinguished.

Kia Gregory

Kia Gregory

This revelation comes at a cost to the well-being of African Americans across the country who are exposed to these images at the swipe of a finger or the click of a mouse. And so far, with precious little to show by way of significant and lasting reform, the cost has been too high.

This is a condensed version of an essay published in The New Republic by Kia Gregory, a New York-based freelance writer, as her project for the 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellowship. Read her full essay here. She welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Police Killings in U.S. Hold Steady in 2018 at 998

Mathematicians say probability theory may offer an explanation of why the national total of police killings has approached 1,000 in each of the last four years.

The Washington Post has updated its total of killings by police officers last year, finding that police shot and killed 998 people, 11 more than in 2017. In 2016, police killed 963 people, and 995 in 2015. Years of controversial shootings, protests, heightened public awareness, police reforms and increased officer training have had little effect on the annual total. Mathematicians say probability theory may offer one explanation. The theory holds that the quantity of rare events in huge populations tends to remain stable absent major changes like a fundamental shift in police culture or extreme restrictions on gun ownership, which are unlikely. “Just as vast numbers of randomly moving molecules, when put together, produce completely predictable behavior in a gas, so do vast numbers of human possibilities, each totally unpredictable in itself, when aggregated, produce an amazing predictability,” said Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge.

The ongoing Post project relies on news accounts, social media postings and police reports. The FBI last month launched a system to track all police use-of-force incidents, including fatal shootings. The system is voluntary. The Post’s reporting shows that both the annual number and circumstances of fatal shootings and the overall demographics of the victims have remained constant over four years. The dead: 45 percent white men; 23 percent black men; and 16 percent Hispanic men. Women accounted for about 5 percent of those killed, and people in mental distress 25 percent. About 54 percent of those killed have been armed with guns and 4 percent unarmed. “We’ve looked at this data in so many ways, including whether race, geography, violent crime, gun ownership or police training can explain it, but none of those factors alone can explain how consistent this number appears to be,” said criminologist Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina.

See “Experts Plan Major Research Project to Reduce Police Shootings” in The Crime Report.

from https://thecrimereport.org

IL Prosecutors Seek Tougher Sentence in McDonald Killing

The llinois Attorney General and a special prosecutor told the state Supreme Court that the six year, nine month sentence for former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke for the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald was too light.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul asked the state Supreme Court for a tougher prison sentence for former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke for the 2014 fatal shooting of a 17-year-old in a case that led to protests and a Justice Department probe, the Wall Street Journal reports. A judge sentenced Van Dyke to six years, nine months in prison for the second-degree murder of Laquan McDonald. Raoul and special prosecutor Joseph McMahon said the sentence should be vacated in favor of a sentence based on the 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm that a jury also convicted Van Dyke of in October. Any of those convictions could warrant consecutive sentences, meaning .Van Dyke could receive a longer prison term.

Van Dyke’s attorneys said the prosecutors’ filing “opens up a Pandora’s box of legal issues that, in the long term, could result in grossly excessive, unjust sentences for defendants.” They said Van Dyke had “no choice but to appeal his conviction.” Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great uncle, called the sentence unsatisfactory given the circumstances of his great-nephew’s death. “He didn’t die with the first shot, he suffered, then died,” Hunter said, adding “Who could ever have faith in the criminal justice system if we allow to stand what this man did. It’s not a small thing.” Prosecutors argued that Van Dyke used excessive force when he shot McDonald 16 times after officers responded to reports of a man breaking into vehicles. Van Dyke testified that he acted in self-defense as the teen advanced on him with a small knife.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Experts Plan Major Research Project on Reducing Police Shootings

Two decades after Amadou Diallo was killed by four New York City police officers in the wrongful belief he carried a gun, fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians continues to mire U.S.police agencies in controversy. Criminologists are planning a new set of studies to examine why–and offer solutions,

Two decades after Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, was killed by four New York City police officers who shot at him 41 times in the wrongful belief he carried a gun, a high-level group of experts is concentrating research efforts on a broad array of ideas to attack a problem that is blamed for reducing public trust in police nationwide.

The experts, mostly academics but also including a former top police training director, gathered in Philadelphia to discuss what is known and unknown about killings by police, and to suggest ways of avoiding many of them.

Diallo’s death, which led to a $3 million settlement with New York City and the acquittal for  the four officers involved, was cited several times in the discussion as a seminal event in the modern history of police shootings, often overlooked since attention focused on the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

More directly responsible for the gathering was a study  published last year by Cambridge University criminologist Lawrence Sherman, in which he argued that shootings by police should be year should be viewed as “system crashes” and studied in the same way as analysts looked at aviation crashes, nuclear meltdowns and other rare events, to help prevent their recurrence.

The setting was the University of Pennsylvania headquarters of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS), which will devote an issue of its bimonthly publication The ANNALS to the subject of fatal police shootings.

Fifty big U.S. cities were able to cut in half the number of fatal shootings of citizens by police between 1970 and 1985, Sherman wrote in the study. He called the development the “First Great Awakening” on the subject.

There was less attention to the problem as crime rates rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not until the Ferguson case was there a “Second Great Awakening of concern and debate over police-citizen violence,” Sherman wrote.

There have been no reliable government statistics on police shootings. The Washington Post has tried to fill the gap by maintaining a database of police use of lethal force since the Brown killing, publishing statistics showing a “remarkable stability” of such incidents over four years, says criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University.

The newspaper counted 995 in 2015; 963 in 2016; 987 in 2017; and 995 last year.

About a dozen experts plan to contribute to The ANNALS volume on the subject, which is scheduled for publication next January.

Because some of their research and writing is in progress, observers were asked not to quote from draft papers. Here are some of the main issues being addressed:

Franklin Zimring of the University of California Berkeley is examining the role of different levels of government in the U.S. — federal, state and local — in dealing with what he terms a high rate of “unnecessary killings of civilians by police.” One major question is whether prosecution of police officers should be a main focus of reformers, as distinct from administrative changes within police departments to prevent unwarranted shootings.

David Klinger of the University of Missouri St. Louis is assessing a theory that many police killings of civilians are “normal accidents” that may occur when several police officers become involved with civilians in confined spaces. That is what occurred in New York City’s Diallo case, in which officers mistook Diallo’s wallet for a gun in a dark vestibule and fired dozens of shots, mistakenly thinking that he had injured an officer.

Charles Branas and Paul Reeping of Columbia University, and Sara Jacoby of the University of Pennsylvania are examining the policy in some cities of allowing police to transport victims of violent acts by police and others to hospitals rather than waiting for emergency medical technicians. Quicker action to deal with the injured may mean the difference between life and death. In Philadelphia, about 30 percent of assault victims are taken by police officers to medical care, but many cities don’t permit such action.

Robin Engel and Hannah McManus of the University of Cincinnati will assess the spread and impact of police efforts to de-escalate volatile encounters.

Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina and Scott Wolfe of Michigan State University are examining the results of a test of a “social interaction” training program called “Tact, Tactics and Trust” that was administered to police officers in Tucson, Az., and Fayetteville, N.C.

Christopher Winship of Harvard University and Lisa Holmes of the University of Massachusetts-Boston are assessing the roles of current regulations governing police work and the content of police training in affecting the level of police shootings.Winship notes that the rates of fatal police shootings varies widely across cities, with many in St. Louis and few in Buffalo, for example. For four years, Holmes was Chief of the Bureau of Professional Development at the Boston Police Department, which has beefed up its training for officers handling critical incidents.

Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago is studying how police can improve their handling of incidents involving people with psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. This includes the use of “gun violence restraining orders,” that are already being used in some states to allow the seizure of guns from people judged to be dangerous.

Phillip Atiba Goff of the Center for Policing Equity based at John Jay College of Criminal Justice will assess what scientific methods might be used in “predicting bad policing.”

Gregory Ridgeway of the University of Pennsylvania is looking at the backgrounds of officers involved in shootings to relate which aspects may be more related to involvement in shooting incidents.

Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University is studying the possible relationship between the availability of firearms and incidence of police use of force. He notes, for example that guns are generally more prevalent in southern and western states, and will examine whether there are more shootings by police in those areas.

Lawrence Sherman will look at whether a system of locally-based “extension agents” comparable to the 30,000 already working with the U.S. Department Agriculture on farming issues could be established to work with local governments and private citizens to find ways to prevent police shootings in their areas. Such an effort might be administered by public universities, he suggested.

In his already-published paper, Sherman noted that a disproportionate number of fatal shootings by police officers have occurred in cities with fewer than 50,000 residents, which indicates that research projects must be sure to include “very small communities in order to understand and help prevent the majority of all fatal police shootings.”

See additional reading on the topic in The Crime Report:

Can Police Change their Mindset from Warriors to Guardians? 

Punishing Police Won’t Curb Officer-Involved Shootings

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.


from https://thecrimereport.org

WI Man Accused of Killing Cop Says He Didn’t Hear ‘Police’

Jordan Fricke, 26, is charged with killing Milwaukee officer Matthew Rittner during a drug raid at his home.

A man who was charged Sunday with killing a Milwaukee officer during a drug raid on his home told investigators he didn’t realize it was police trying to break down his door, the Associated Press reports. Jordan Fricke, 26, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide and other crimes in the fatal shooting of 35-year-old officer Matthew Rittner, who was part of a tactical unit trying to serve a warrant to search the home for illegal drugs and weapons last Wednesday. Police said they announced their presence several times and said they had a search warrant, and an officer yelled “police” before Fricke fired four rounds through a hole in the door that Rittner had made with a battering ram. Rittner died of a gunshot wound to the chest.

Fricke was in bed with his girlfriend when they were awakened by loud noise and yelling. He told investigators that he never heard anyone yell “search warrant.” He said he thought he heard someone say “police” but didn’t think it was actually the police trying to break into his home. Fricke’s girlfriend said she saw him shoot at the kitchen door and that she knew police were at the door because she heard them identify themselves, said a criminal complaint. A $1 million cash bond was set for Fricke. Rittner, a 17-year veteran of the force, was the third Milwaukee officer killed in the line of duty in eight months.

from https://thecrimereport.org

California Lawmakers Once Again Take on Police Shootings

One bill, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and similar groups, would allow district attorneys to more easily prosecute police officers for killing civilians. The other, which has the support of police unions and management, would instead focus on internal department policies and training.

A year after the failure of legislation that would have made it easier to criminally prosecute police officers for killing civilians, California lawmakers will once again debate stricter legal standards for officers who use deadly force, The Los Angeles Times reports. 

This week, legislators are introducing two competing bills on the issue, setting up a renewed clash between civil-liberties organizations and law-enforcement groups. One bill, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and similar groups, would allow district attorneys to more easily prosecute police officers for killing civilians. The other, which has the support of police unions and management, would instead focus on internal department policies and training. Under the current law, police can use deadly force if it’s “objectively reasonable” for them to do so. The bill backed by the ACLU would allow prosecutors to take into account an officer’s actions prior to a killing that could have negligently placed the officer in harm’s way. It would only allow the use deadly force against someone fleeing arrest if they believe that person has committed a violent felony and it’s necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury, encouraging prosecutors to consider whether police could have deescalated the situation with verbal warnings or used nonlethal force beforehand.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Alabama AG Won’t Charge Officer in Mall Shooting

Attorney General Steve Marshall said a police officer who has not been named “did not commit a crime” when he fatally shot Emantic “EJ” Bradford Jr. at a shopping mall on Thanksgiving night.

Protesters enraged by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s decision to clear the officer who fatally shot Emantic “EJ” Bradford Jr. at the a shopping mall in  Hoover, Al., on Thanksgiving night burned two American flags in front of Hoover City Hall Tuesday night, reports Al.com. “He did not deserve what you did to him. You shoot my first born son three times, three kill shots and you call this justice. How dare you. If this happened to your child, would you still call it justice? Because I don’t see any justice in this,” said Bradford’s mother, April Pipkins.

Organizer Carlos Chaverst then spray painted “Black lives don’t matter” on two American flags before setting them on fire. Hoover police have not released the officer’s name. “After an extensive investigation and review, the Attorney General has determined Officer 1 did not commit a crime under Alabama law when he shot and killed E.J. Bradford and thus the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct preclude presentation of this case to a grand jury,” Marshall said. “The facts of this case demonstrate that Officer 1 reasonably exercised his official powers, duties, or functions when he shot” Bradford. , the report continues. Cynthia Bradford, Bradford’s step mother, said, “I wasn’t surprised Steve Marshall chose not to charge the Hoover officer who killed E.J. Bradford, Jr. with a crime. But I’m still mad.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Family of Gunplay Victim Sees ‘Unanswered Questions’

The parents of a St. Louis police officer killed by a fellow officer in an apparent game of Russian roulette vow a thorough investigation and possible civil litigation.

The parents of a St. Louis police officer shot and killed by a fellow officer in an apparent Russian roulette game have hired a legal team that is threatening civil litigation and a probing look into what it called “a substantial amount of unanswered questions” about the event, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

The shooting occurred last week at the home of Officer Nathaniel Hendren, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action in the death of Katlyn Alix. Police said Hendren and his patrol partner were on duty but at Hendren’s home with Alix, who was off duty, when they began taking turns pulling the trigger on a revolver while pointing it at each other. Alix suffered a gunshot wound to the chest and was pronounced dead at the hospital where the other two officers took her. Hendren was hospitalized after head-butting the back window of a police vehicle but on Monday was booked into jail.

from https://thecrimereport.org

After Delay, Jackson PD IDs Officers From Shootings

Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Lumumba took office promising better and more transparent policing, but only after a months-long study did it stop resisting calls to release the names of police officers involved in shootings. Now the next controversy is brewing.

Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Lumumba took office in July 2017 promising criminal-justice reform and better and more transparent policing. But only after more than a year of study and pressure did his office finally, on Jan. 28, reveal the names of a dozen police officers involved in nine shootings since 2017, the Jackson Free Press reports. The city refused to provide a copy of the mayor’s new executive order establishing the naming from now on of officers involved in shootings, nor would the city agree to identify officers involved in deaths that don’t involve shooting.

Earlier in January, residents complained that Jackson police struck a 62-year-old stroke victim in the head with a flashlight during an arrest. He died two days later. In a prepared statement, the mayor said the officers being investigated in that death would not be identified “because this is not an officer involved shooting,” but instead will reconvene the officer ID task force that recommended the new shooting-ID policy last October. In the batch of police officer IDs released was one officer who had been involved in three separate shootings.


from https://thecrimereport.org

Drug Raid Shootings Leave 5 Houston Officers Wounded

Suspected drug dealers opened fire on Houston police as they raided an alleged heroin den. Four officers, including the 54-year-old team leader, were shot. A fifth officer was injured, and two suspects were killed.

A concerned neighbor’s tip to police about a suspected heroin den in southeast Houston prompted the police raid Monday afternoon that got four Houston police officers shot and a fifth injured when they broke down the door and were met by a hail of gunfire, the Houston Chronicle reports. Two of the officers, including the 54-year-old case agent leading the investigation, suffered critical neck wounds. Two suspected drug dealers were killed when police returned fire, police said.

The most senior of the narcotics squad — the case agent, who was not yet identified by name — has been shot twice previously in the line of duty since joining HPD in 1984, once in 1992 and again in 1997. During the 1992 incident, he took a bullet to the cheek. “Most people would call it a day after being shot and surviving, but this man is 54,” Police Chief Art Acevedo said. “He’s the case agent and he was there on the front lines.” The last time a Houston police officer was shot on duty in a similar incident was in 2017, when two gang officers were wounded in an operation in southwest Houston.

from https://thecrimereport.org