The August 9, 2014 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an African American, in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer named Darren Wilson during a street stop unleashed local civil disobedience and a violent, militarized police response. This tragic shooting triggered a national debate about police violence against black men. Four of the six shots from Wilson’s service weapon struck Brown in the backside of his body. Despite this, a grand jury and the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice found there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Wilson.
A similar pattern would ensue over the next four years in other high-profile fatal police shootings of African Americans across the country. These shooters responsible for some of these deaths, narrowed from a list too long to document here, include:
- Timothy Loehmann – a white Cleveland police officer who, in November 2014, shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, an African American child, outside a recreation center in a local park while responding to a dispatch call about someone waving a pistol. A Cuyanoga County grand jury declined to indict Loehmann for the killing in December 2015.
- Michael Slager – a white North Charleston, South Carolina police officer who, in August 2015, shot and killed Walter Scott during a traffic stop. Five of the eight bullets fired from Slager’s service weapon struck Scott in the back. Slager was indicted by a local state grand jury for murder, but a jury could not reach a verdict in the case in December 2016. Slager reached a plea agreement with federal authorities for violating Scott’s civil rights that resulted in a 20-year prison sentence in December 2017. The state dismissed the murder charge pursuant to that federal agreement.
- Ray Tensing – a white University of Cincinnati police officer who, in July 2015, shot and killed Samuel Dubose during a traffic stop. He was initially indicted for murder. A jury could not reach a verdict. He was then charged with voluntary manslaughter, but a second jury could not reach a verdict. Ohio authorities dismissed all charges against Tensing in July 2017.
- Jeronimo Yanez – a Latino St. Paul, Minnesota police officer who, in July 2016, shot and killed Philando Castille during a traffic stop. He was indicted by a grand jury for second degree manslaughter. A jury acquitted him in June 2017.
- Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II – two white Baton Rouge, Louisiana police officers who, in July 2016, shot and killed Alton Sterling outside a local convenience store where he was selling CDs. The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office in March 2018 and the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department in May 2017 announced after separate investigations that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against the two officers.
Conviction of Fired Police Officer is Unique
That’s why the case of a white Dallas, Texas police officer named Roy Oliver recently gained widespread national publicity.
Police Officers Lies After Shoots, Kills 15-Year-Old Jordan Edwards
In April 2017, the Balch Spring officer fired five rounds from his service weapon into a vehicle of unarmed black teenagers leaving a local party. One of those rounds struck 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, an African American, in the head, killing him. Oliver initially told police investigators that the vehicle was aggressively moving toward his fellow officer necessitating the need to open fire into the vehicle. A police video, however, showed that the vehicle was moving away from the other officer when Oliver started shooting.
Oliver was fired and indicted for murder by a Dallas County grand jury.
After an eight-day trial and 13 hours of jury deliberations, Oliver was found guilty on the murder charge on August 27, 2018. The mixed-race jury assessed a prison sentence of 15 years the following day.
Guilty Verdict Exceedingly Rare
This guilty verdict of the crime charged against a police officer involved in a fatal shooting is exceedingly rare.
According to Philip Stinson, a former police officer and now a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, 85 police officers nationwide were charged with murder or manslaughter since 2005 following on-duty shootings. Through March 2018, US News reported that 32 of the officers had been convicted of a crime, often for a lesser offense, while 41 of them were acquitted. Twelve cases were pending.
679 Fatal Police Shootings as of August 2018
The Washington Post reports that there were 987 fatal police shootings in 2017s and the current number for 2018 stands at 679.
African Americans account for 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, yet, according to Colorlines, 23 percent of fatal police shootings (223) in 2017 involved a black man. The Root reports that more black people were killed by the police in 2017 than the 161 who were lynched in 1892, the worst of the Jim Crow era.
Trial of Laquan McDonald Killer Schedule for September
Those who fight for criminal justice reform and police accountability will now turn to the scheduled September 5, 2018 first degree murder trial of a former white Chicago police officer named Jason Van Dyke who, in October 2014, fired 16 rounds from his service revolver into the body of 17-year old Laquan McDonald, an African American. Video footage shows that the shooting was about as calculated violence as one could imagine. The suspect was nowhere near the officer and certainly posed no threat to him or any of the other officers present at the scene.
Systemic Racism is the Root Cause of Police Violence Against Blacks
But the Oliver verdict does little to explain the continuing white police violence against black men – many of whom, like Jordan Edwards, are not armed. There is something buried deep in the historical psyche of white police officers that make them perceive black men as posing a greater threat to them than males of other races.
Police are trained to shoot, and to shoot to kill when there is an immediate threat to their personal safety or to the safety of others. The problem inherent in the training to shoot is that each individual officer’s racial and cultural biases are buried deep in the officer’s finger on that trigger. Threat assessment is too often misused by white police officers to justify the killing of African America men, regardless of their age.
Black men are disproportionately arrested and convicted of crime, received longer prison sentences, spend more time in prison, and die more often in prison.
Would Timothy Loehmann have shot a 12-year-old white kid in that same Cleveland park? Or would Oliver have fired five rounds into a vehicle of white teenagers trying to get away from a rowdy party in an upscale predominantly white Dallas suburban neighborhood?
We think not.