The video is heartbreaking.
Moments after she live-streamed the death of her boyfriend at the hands of a police officer, a woman cries as she sits in the back of a squad car, her young daughter comforting her, saying “it’s ok, Mommy, I’m right here with you!” The little girl herself begins to cry moments later.
That was July of 2016 in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, following the officer-involved shooting of Philando Castile.
Fast forward nearly a year. After a jury trial deliberation, St. Anthony police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was found not guilty of manslaughter.
Should people—particularly African Americans—be afraid after this verdict? If you’re on social media, if you watch virtually any mainstream commentary program, blog, or show—heck yeah, you should be. As the story goes, a black guy got shot point blank in his car by an over-eager cop after simply reaching for his license, right?
But, just give me a minute.
People, we have to be willing to look at facts, not emotion. We, just as the twelve-person jury (including two people of color) did in a court of law, must look at all the facts, not simply the ones we think we see or want to see.
If we want a society where we ALL can live freely and fearlessly, we must resist the urge to pass convict via public opinion, and we must be willing to examine tough truths.
Let’s dig in.
"But, he was just reaching for his license!"
That’s where Diamond Reynolds,’ Castile’s girlfriend) Facebook live stream starts.
And that’s where the court of public opinion kicked in. I’ll be honest, I saw that, and thought it looked really bad. I made a judgment right away, and it wasn’t in favor of the cop.
Except that’s not the whole story; a story we weren’t visibly privy to (except through verbal explanations of what happened) until the release of the dashcam video just a few days ago, following the verdict.
This is also what jurors saw as they made their decision.
In the footage, Yanez explained to Castile why he had pulled him over (a broken taillight), and proceeded to ask for his license and insurance. Castile is seen handing papers to Yanez.
“Sir,” Castile says as Officer Yanez hands the paper back to him, “I have to tell you I do have a firearm on me.”
Yanez is heard calmly replying, “Ok, don’t reach for it then.”
Castile continues to reach for the pocket.
Yanez warns him again, this time with a hand next to his holster.
Castile continues reaching anyway.
“Don’t pull it out!” Yanez yells much louder this time—drawing his weapon. Castile continued to reach for the pocket, and that’s when the video shows Yanez shooting Castile.
“I told him not to reach for it,” Yanez later explained, “And when he went down to grab, I told him not to reach for it. And then he kept it right there, and I told him to take his hand off of it. And then he, he had his grip a lot wider than a wallet.”
A prosecutor in the case claimed that if “Yanez, when told of the gun, had simply stepped back a few feet to better assess the situation … the officer might have heard Castile say he was just trying to get his wallet.”
And if Castile had simply lifted his hands away from the pocket as originally asked, this article would be ending here.
Castile informed the officer he had a gun. Shouldn’t that be enough?
As a lawfully licensed conceal-carry permit holder, Castile did the right thing by informing the officer that he had a gun.
Castile erased all that when he refused, after multiple warnings, to take his hand away from the pocket. When someone (of any color) refuses to comply with an order not to touch what the officer believes is the gun, the rational, trained assumption is that the owner intends to use it.
Castile may have had no such intention—but with his refusal to obey a simple command, he forced Yanez to assume he did.
As all carry permit holders know, that permit carries an immense responsibility. You’re carrying a deadly weapon, and there is no room for error. Even armed off-duty police officers who are pulled over always place their hands on the wheel where the other officer can see them until told to do otherwise. It’s just common sense.
Why couldn’t he have simply fired a warning shot in the air or at the ground—or why couldn’t he have shot to injure Castile?
Setting aside the fact that “warning shots” and “shooting to injure” don’t exist as protocol, let’s say the officer fires a so-called “warning shot.”
First, that’s still discharging a weapon, which is still deadly force.
Second, when you’re dealing with someone who might want to kill you, milliseconds count. You either make the decision to discharge your weapon for a purpose, or you don’t.
Third, Castile did get a warning shot; it came verbally, and it clearly asked him to take his hand off his pocket. Several times. If Castile (or anyone in that position) is refusing the serious verbal warnings, they’re certainly not going to listen to a shot to the ground. In fact, it’s probably going to make the situation worse.
Lastly, “shooting to injure” would still be deadly force regardless of where the officer “tries” to hit the person. The person could still easily die, which is why when an officer makes the decision to use deadly force, it’s not a slap on the hand. It’s supposed to end the threat before the threat ends the officer—or anyone else around them, including (in this case) the girlfriend and the little girl in the car.
Speaking of escalation of force, isn’t seven shots excessive? Was that really necessary?
How many shots are acceptable? One? Two? Again, if the officer has made the decision that there’s no other recourse but to shoot, they’re shooting to stop the threat, because that’s where the threat took it. What’s more, in a situation that escalated like this, the officer has no way of knowing exactly how many shots hit the target until the dust settles.
This verdict "tells African-Americans across the country that they can be killed by police officers with impunity, even when they are following the law."
That was Congressman Cedric Richmond echoing the sentiments of thousands who marched in protest.
But, Castile didn’t follow the law.
Well, he did—up until he refused multiple commands to take his hand away from his pocket. (That, and autopsy reports show he was quite high on marijuana at the time, which is illegal in the state of Minnesota.)
Exactly what part of the dashcam footage showing Yanez’s tear-laden screams following the shooting, or his plea to the other officer to “get that baby girl out of here!”(in reference to Reynolds’ daughter) would make you believe he wanted to kill Castile? Or that he lives in a society that’s ok with “murdering” African Americans?
Shortly after, the video shows other officers arriving on scene and attempting to revive Castile. Are we really going to sit here and say we’re a society that celebrates and allows for the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police when those same police officers tried to save him?
To put this incident and Congressman Richmond’s comment into perspective, in the last 10 years, the percentage of the African American population in Minnesota shot and killed by police was just .0007%. Further, Yanez’s department hasn’t had an officer involved shooting of any race in 30 years.
Castile’s death (as with of the deaths in that .0007%) was tragic. But it’s hardly the purposeful epidemic Richmond suggests.
In the very same time period, statistically far more (nearly 1%) Minnesota law enforcement officers have lost their lives in the line of duty—an eerily similar example being Mendota Heights Officer Scott Patrick, who was shot and killed within seconds of approaching a car on a “routine” traffic stop just like how Yanez had stopped Castile.
It all boils down to this: none of this HAD to happen. None of this HAS to happen to anyone.
If you’re in this situation and an officer asks you not to continue reaching for something, then stop reaching for it—whatever it is. The officer isn’t attacking your civil rights, racially targeting you, or breaking the law. They’re protecting his or her life, and ultimately yours. Yanez didn’t want Castile to die. The other officers didn’t want him to die. Castile made that choice for them.
We live in such a racially charged society; one where African American commentators like “Blogging While Black” writer La Sha actually claim living here and being black is equal to being imprisoned by the North Koreans. This makes it hard to even talk about facts or personal responsibility without being utterly discredited.
That’s why these truths are tough.
It’s easy to make it about police brutality or race. It’s hard to make it about a choice the victim made, a choice that erased every good choice he ever made.
If you take nothing else away from the Castile case, let it be this: be responsible and make good choices.
It’s that simple.
Mary Ramirez is a full-time writer, creator of www.afuturefree.com (a political commentary blog), and contributor to The Chris Salcedo Show (TheBlaze Radio Network, M-F, 3-5. ET). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree