Just recently, a verdict was released on the shooting of Philando Castile, a year after the event itself. Castile had been pulled over by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop, had told the officer about his legal gun in the car (which he was not legally obliged to do), and had acted correctly in every way during the situation, according to news reports. The verdict for the officer, delivered by a jury of the officer’s peers, returned a verdict of “not guilty.” Afterwards, there was public outrage and grief at the verdict expressed by people worldwide from Castile’s family and community to the studio of The Daily Show.
However, the aim of this article is not to express emotional indignation about the case or similar cases like it. After all, I wasn’t in the courtroom, and I did not see the evidence or testimony presented. My purpose isn’t to be angry. Rather, it is to present the statistics of fatal police shootings in recent years and try to make some sense of this troubling issue despite its emotional nature. Furthermore, I do not mean to criticize the police, as I fully respect their jobs and the hard choices they have to make. The system, not the individual, is where the problem lies.
For data, the Washington Post has been keeping track of fatal police shootings since 2015. There is a disparity between their data and that of the FBI’s. For example, the Post noted about 500 more deaths than the FBI.
The problem with these cases of unarmed people being shot by police is not in the verdicts: while “not guilty” seems to lack justice most of the time, courts of law do not work like the people’s court. Multiple legal nuances can be and are used to solicit a verdict, and the certainty that needs to be presented in court is not necessary for public opinion to sway one way or the other.
And yet, unarmed citizens are still being shot. To fix this, some pundits and former officers recommend changing how police officers are trained; others argue that the use of deadly force is necessary to protect the lives of the officers. Case studies of cities like Richmond, California exemplify success stories of police departments that have altered training practices for law enforcement. Whether they increase accountability within the police force or just train more with non-lethal weapons, these cities see the frequency of officer-involved shootings go down.
The one issue not addressed here yet is the thing that springs to everyone’s mind with every new shooting: the race of the officer and the race of the victim.
Race relations between law enforcement and minorities in this country have always been tense, both historically and presently. As a white woman from suburbia with my own subjective views, I lay no claim to fully knowing or understanding this debate, which is why I must fall back on data.
The Post’s database shows that unarmed black Americans are five times as likely to be shot and killed by a police officer compared to white Americans. This disproportionate figure is disturbing and loaded with multiple connotations.
Not everyone sees racism in these figures. Some argue that this phenomenon is due to black Americans living, on average, in areas with a lower socioeconomic status and higher crime: the police are shooting more people because there is more crime.
However, the Post mentions a 2015 study that addresses this claim, and it finds that there is no “consistent relationship” between racial bias in police shootings and crime levels in an area. In other words, the two seem to be unrelated, suggesting that the appearance of racial bias in police shootings stems from other issues.
There are many places from which this bias may come. However, it seems evident that racial bias, whether hidden or blatant, systematic or purposeful, is a strong predictor of who gets shot by police. This bias only grows worse in recent years as the political climate has become ever more divisive. The media latches on to every incident of violence and covers it 24/7, dramatizing events and making America’s racial and social climate even more strained.
This strain suffers under ignorance. 38% of white Americans believe that the government has done everything to give black and white people equal rights. Just 8% of black Americans agree. These vastly different perceptions themselves are indicative of inequality in America but even more so of a fundamental misunderstanding of life in America. In a segment on the black experience in America, Trevor Noah said that he was not surprised to find out Philando Castile had been pulled over 52 times previously; white people tended to be much more surprised. After all, how often is a white guy pulled over for driving in the wrong place at the wrong time?
This country had elected a black president in 2008, and for years afterwards, among the seemingly more pressing problems of the recession, those ignorant to race issues seemed to think America’s race problem was over. But as cameras seemed to capture more and more tragic shootings and more evidence of that problem still existing and growing, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew and systematic racism was highlighted, less and less Americans could claim that the issue was resolved. Now, membership in hate groups is on the rise, and racism in America can no longer be ignored. De facto segregation in schools and communities contributes to inequality and is effectively ignored due to its informal nature. In the end, this inequality only leads to more fatal shootings of unarmed black Americans.
For a while, I had also been numb to all this, tired of the outrage and anger and active concern about the three people killed every day in police-involved shootings. The death of Philando Castile specifically shook me out of my numbness because not only was it another tragedy, but I knew exactly how else the situation might have played out had Philando Castile been white.
Recently, a family friend of mine was pulled over at a traffic stop. HE told the police officer about the legal gun in the car (which he was not legally obliged to do) and acted correctly in every way during the situation. The officer had let him go with a smile and a warning to watch his speedometer, despite the fact that he had been going 10-15 miles over the limit.
In other words, the color of his skin may have saved his life that day. Philando Castile and he acted the exact same way, and yet their days ended so tragically different. Two men were equally respectful and yet not equal.
Whether these shootings are addressed through training police officers differently, more effectively confronting centuries-old systematic racism, or simply increasing accountability across the judiciary system, they must be addressed before we become a country that becomes indifferent to every new story of a tragic death.