It is a genuinely open question whether an American police officer can do almost anything without suffering criminal consequences. Americans have a profoundly stupid and misguided deferential attitude toward law enforcement, one which presumes that police officers—fallible, often incompetent, and frequently temperamental human beings—are worthy of some sort of extra-special benefit of the doubt about their professional behavior. American citizens have no problem suing doctors for their back molars on the flimsiest of pretexts, but we generally cannot bring ourselves to convict police officers for demonstrably inept and reckless behavior that often costs people their lives.
That is the lesson we learn, yet again, in the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, a St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer who last year shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop. At face value the incident is a perfect storm of a tragedy. Yanez thought Castile might have been a robbery suspect; Castile was carrying a pistol (for which he had a valid permit), and informed Yanez of this as he reached for his license. Yanez, allegedly believing that Castile was reaching for his declared firearm, consequently opened fire.
You can sort of understand Yanez’s hasty reaction—if you don’t think about it too much. Upon reflection there was no good reason for Yanez to have opened fire upon Castile. He had no indication there was any reason to do so. As the prosecutor in Yanez’s criminal trial put it, “Unreasonable fear cannot justify the use of deadly force. The use of deadly force must be objectively reasonable and necessary, given the totality of the circumstances.”
Acknowledging a Weapon Is Not a Crime
A man telling you he is permitted to carry a firearm while he’s reaching for his license does not, by any rational standard, give one “objectively reasonable and necessary” justification for shooting that man. It also beggars belief that someone with murderous intent would politely inform a police officer of his concealed weapon before pulling it out to use it. How many cop-killers give their victims a calm and friendly heads-up before opening fire?
Yanez should have known this. He was no fresh-faced rookie just out of the academy; he had been on the force for four years. The charges eventually leveled at him—second-degree manslaughter and two felony counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm—were perfectly reasonable given the circumstances. Nobody was asking that Yanez be charged with first-degree murder and be given the death penalty; prosecutors simply asked that he be brought to justice for behavior that would have landed any one of the rest of us in prison.
But that didn’t happen, for the simple reason that we have a queer aversion to convicting police officers when they quite obviously break the law. A few years ago a police officer in South Carolina shot Walter Scott in the back as Scott was running away, an incident captured on video, leaving no doubt as to just what had transpired. Even the crystal-clear evidence of the officer’s criminal behavior, however, wasn’t enough to convict him. The jury ended up hung and a mistrial was declared.
Obvious video evidence of an officer putting five shots into a man’s back should lead to a slam-dunk conviction after about three minutes of deliberation. That it didn’t—and that this kind of thing happens, in varying degrees, all the time—suggests that Americans have a deeply dysfunctional and unhealthy attitude about what constitutes acceptable police behavior.
To its great credit, the St. Anthony Police Department has announced that Yanez will no longer be a part of their force. Call it a matter of politics, optics, or something else, but in the end it is a good thing that Yanez is off the streets. But it is still not enough. He should, by any sensible metric of justice, be behind bars.
Philando Castile is dead, and he’s dead because Yanez killed him for no good reason. This is not a hard nut to crack. We should not be afraid to prosecute and convict law enforcement officers for unjustly killing innocent people. The police, good as they can be, are not above the law. Nobody is.