Police Shootings, Emotional Accusations, and the Standard of Beyond Reasonable Doubt

Recently, former police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter after he shot and killed Philando Castille on a routine traffic stop.  Castille was armed, but reportedly told Yanez that he was licensed to carry.  Yanez still ended up shooting him when he believed that Castille reached for his gun as opposed to his wallet.  It was yet another high profile shooting of a black man by police (though this time by a Hispanic and not white officer), and once again the public (particularly the black community) was outraged when the officer was acquitted of all charges.  Cries of racism, systemic racism, and injustice filled social media again.

Much of this reaction is understandable.  While critics might argue, somewhat correctly, that the way the media chooses to cover these events gives off the impression that cops just go around shooting black people for no reason when that statistically isn’t supported, it’s still disturbing how some of these incidents go down.  Certainly, the Castille shooting looks very fishy at first glance, and nobody wants to see such stories whether they are rare or not.  Nonetheless, people need to be better at calmly and rationally evaluating these incidents without jumping to emotional conclusions, and they need to ask themselves this simple question: Was there enough evidence to criminally convict?  If not, no matter how we feel, an acquittal is the right decision for the jury to make.  Pointing this out is not racist, insensitive, or apathetic to injustice; it’s simply an acknowledgement of the facts as well as the limitations of our human courts.

Innocent until proven guilty and beyond reasonable doubt

As many know, the standard for conviction in criminal cases is “beyond reasonable doubt.”  Such a high standard does mean that some guilty people go free, and that should irk anyone who is concerned about justice.  We like Batman because he goes and beats up those guys anyway.  However, it is an abomination when people are convicted of crimes they did not commit, and such a high standard of evidence helps prevent that from happening.  This certainly does not mean that juries and judges can’t make really bad decisions that are fair game to criticize, but it does mean that unless we have a firm grasp of the evidence presented in the case, we should avoid knee-jerk reactions and simply assuming that the jury was full of racist morons.

I have not reviewed the Castille case very closely, but I did bother to look more carefully at two other high profile cases: The shooting of Michael Brown as well as the shooting of Trayvon Martin.  In the former case, Officer Wilson was not only acquitted, but he was basically proven innocent because the entire “hands up don’t shoot” narrative was found to be completely false.  The Martin case was far murkier (and did not involve a police officer), but when I reviewed the evidence, it became clear that there was not enough evidence to convict.  The jury therefore acted appropriately.  This does not mean that there have not been unfair verdicts before, but such things need to be decided on a case by case basis, not by blanket assumptions stemming from emotional reactions.

Emotional accusations that go nowhere and help nobody

Here is where many people try to respond with accusations that such thinking is cold or insensitive.  Or perhaps it is an apologetic for the obvious systemic racism of our country.  Or maybe people like me are somehow saying that these men “deserved” to get shot for not listening to police instructions exactly.  None of these things are true, and it is decidedly unhelpful to resort to such nonsense.

All I’m pointing out is that, given our court system, many of these cases lacked the evidence to reach the high standard of conviction.  However, it’s important to note that an acquittal does not necessarily equal a demonstration of innocence, nor does it mean that there can’t be other consequences that do not require such a high standard of evidence.  Yanez, for example, will no longer be a police officer, which seems like a perfectly reasonable decision by the police given the highly questionable circumstances of the shooting.  He may be acquitted of manslaughter, but it seems he failed to make a better decision as a police officer and so deserves to lose his job.  Furthermore, nobody defends Zimmerman as some sort of saint, as it seems like he not only made bad decisions that night but also is a foolish guy all around.  Perhaps Zimmerman, Yanez, and Betty Shelby (the Tulsa police officer who shot Terence Crutcher) are all truly guilty, but the jury simply cannot dish out such a verdict without a lot of evidence.  If they are guilty, only God knows that.

Saying that acquittals such as these were possibly appropriate is also not the same as saying that these people “deserved” what came to them.  That is a silly strawman accusation.  I think everyone who looked at these events saw them as sad, unfortunate, and avoidable, but none of those things mean that the officer is obviously guilty of manslaughter or murder.  Police officers have dangerous jobs and sometimes have to make split-second decisions that can result in life or death, and they are trained to react to any suspicious movement, even if someone is reaching into his pocket to pull out a Snickers bar unannounced.  Even if it’s a 5% chance that it’s a gun, it’s still something that officers are quite reasonably trained to be wary of.  In fact, one time I was pulled over for rolling a stop sign in college, and while the officer was processing my information, I was rummaging around my glove box.  He came back and told me to not do that because police are trained to be alert and reactive to such movements.  I didn’t have a gun and I was obviously a college student, being a young guy around campus who was wearing his Longhorns hat, but even then my movements made the officer go on alert.

Also, as I pointed out about the Michael Brown shooting, even if it were proven that there is widespread, systemic racism among police, that simply does not justify jumping to conclusions in individual cases, just like it is not justified to jump to a conclusion that a black person is guilty of a crime simply because, statistically, black men commit a disproportionate amount of crimes in this country.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that racism, systemic or personal, doesn’t exist (the former is debatable, depending on how one defines “systemic,” while the latter is both obviously present but also difficult and probably inappropriate to make sweeping legislation against); it only means court cases require a sober evaluation of the facts of the case rather than assumptions borne from alleged patterns.

Thus, jumping to conclusions that people who agree with acquittals or who even simply advocate withholding quick judgment are racists, racist apologists, or whatever is obtuse and poisonous to rational dialogue.  It is perfectly possible to dislike these events and have sympathy for the families but also agree that many of these cases lacked the requisite amount of evidence to convict.

Conclusion

Responsibly thinking people should make a distinction between what is good evidence for conviction and what is a sad incident, and unfortunately too many people conflate the two.  However, there is still a nagging question: What do we do about this?  Again, these incidents don’t always stop being disturbing simply because an officer is rightfully acquitted.

I’m honestly not entirely sure, though there are some tentative suggestions.  Perhaps officers can be trained to react with less than deadly force, though we don’t want to put officers in more perilous circumstances than they already are.  Maybe they can receive more training in subduing people in other ways.  Also, higher accountability and strict punishments for clear excessive force should reinforce standards that, while we should be thankful to police for their service, our gratefulness doesn’t give every single police officer a blank check to break rules and common decency.  If there’s a tribalistic culture among police too, where they protect their own at all costs, then that should be addressed as well because we’d rather have police who are concerned about right and wrong, even if that means that they testify against a fellow cop who failed his duty.  And of course, if a cop is found to have acted out in racist ways, that cop needs to face consequences.

It will also help that people are taught to respect police and the dangerous jobs they have.  There’s a bit too much pride in “resisting the Man” in certain circles of society, and that is not only stupid but also potentially dangerous if it leads to brazenly resisting or disobeying police on the field.  It’s really not cool, and young people should not be taught that it is.

And lastly, the media could be way more balanced and honest about stuff like this.  As I wrote in my post about the Trayvon Martin case, the media transparently blew that story up with one-sided or even false information, and it was a pretty distasteful way to gain viewers.  Small wonder why people are so suspicious of the mainstream media these days.  People could also, you know, think critically about what the media feeds them in the first place.

All of this could create a culture of more trust and accountability between police and the communities they are sworn to protect, but all sides need to be willing to listen and give a little.  And that requires less reactive emotionalism and more calm reasoning.

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