Americans have now seen many young black men die on camera at the hands of the police. Thanks to body cams, dash cams, and primarily bystanders with cell phones, these gruesome events have been made public, showing us the speed with which officers have reacted and chosen to use deadly force. Videos have been unable to bring justice, however. The law has overwhelmingly landed on the side of those who have sworn to enforce it, not the victims of its misuse.
Philando Castile’s death has become yet another example of that justice miscarried. Last week officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter charges by a jury, despite having shot Castile seven times during a routine traffic stop in July of 2016. The situation escalated after Castile informed the officer that he had a weapon, and Yanez told him not to reach for it. In dash cam video released this week, the public saw for the first time that in mere seconds, Yanez had opened fire and the damage had been done. The conversation never went any further, and it ended up not mattering that Castile had a license to carry. His last words heard on the video were, “I wasn’t reaching for it”.
Sadly, Castile’s story is not the first, not will it be the last that we see play out this way. According to the Washington Post, 963 people were shot and killed by police last year. Rarely are officers convicted. As for public outrage, race undoubtedly plays a role. The NRA, normally a vocal defender of citizen’s rights to bear weapons, has been oddly silent about Castile’s case.
What’s made the tragic end of Philando Castile’s life unique is that through video evidence, the public has been exposed to the pain and fear of his loved ones in the moments immediately after the incident. On the day of Castile’s death, we saw the harrowing video streamed live on Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. Sitting next to Castile, blood soaking through his white t-shirt, Reynold’s described through tears what she had happened. She told the courtroom that she wanted to record the moment so that if she were to die, “someone would know the truth”.
This week, as other information was released following the conclusion of the trial, another heart breaking and infuriating video shows Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter in the back of the police car. The child is trying to console her mother, saying “I’m here with you” and begging her mom to "please stop cussing and screaming”. More than once she says, “I don't want you to get shooted."
Think of what this 4-year-old girl had witnessed. She was sitting in the seat behind Castile when he was shot, and next found herself inside a police vehicle beside her mother, who was in handcuffs. It’s no wonder that she feared Reynolds could be the next to get hurt, just for showing emotion. And yet during the trial, officer Yanez was also acquitted of charges related to endangering Reynolds and her daughter’s lives. This despite one of the bullets hitting the back seat, inches away from the child’s car seat.
Philando Castile’s mother shared her outrage and grief at the system’s failure when speaking to the press after the verdict. In an interview Yanez gave during the investigation into Castile’s death, he repeatedly said that fear for his life was the justification for unloading his weapon. In court, what matters was not that he took someone’s life, but that the officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable” considering his belief that there was a threat. Some may believe the system did its job, but what’s undeniable is that these horrifying experiences are failing the children who grow up having seen first hand how encounters with police can become deadly.
If members of law enforcement are forgiven for their mistakes because of fear, we need to acknowledge as a society what the effects may be on so many children, families, and entire communities who deal with those same emotions when they see someone in uniform. What this child lived through, was terror. During one gut wrenching moment of the video from the back of the cruiser, the little girl said to her mother, "I wish this town was safer”. She wasn’t referring to crime, but the people entrusted with protecting citizens from it.