It may have been a tragic misunderstanding, or it may have been yet another example of what Black Lives Matter protesters say is racial bias in police shootings. But on Wednesday, the officer involved in the shooting was fired.
Corey Jones, a 31-year-old black man, was waiting for a tow truck by his disabled car on I-95 in Florida on Sunday, October 18. A plainclothes police officer arrived on the scene, and got out of his unmarked car to investigate what he thought was an abandoned vehicle. Jones, who was licensed to carry a gun and was reportedly carrying at the time, allegedly confronted the cop. Minutes later, the police officer shot Jones dead.
But Jones's family and attorney say there's much more to the story. For one, they say Jones very likely thought he was being attacked by the plainclothes cop. "I believe Corey Jones went to his grave never knowing that that the person who was there was a police officer," Jones family attorney Benjamin Crump said, USA Today's Yamiche Alcindor reported. "The thing that seems reasonable is that he thought he and his car were being vandalized and attacked."
On Thursday, the Palm Beach Gardens police department announced it had fired Nouman Raja, the officer who shot and killed Jones. "The City of Palm Beach Gardens has been cautiously and methodically considering the employment status of Officer Nouman Raja. Therefore, Officer Raja, a probationary employee with the City, has been terminated from employment effective Wednesday, November 11, 2015 at 5:00 PM," the police department said in a statement. "The independent criminal investigation into the Officer-Involved Shooting that occurred on October 18, 2015 is ongoing and the City will continue to cooperate with all agencies involved."
The Jones shooting drew local protests and nationwide scrutiny, elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement that's protested racial disparities in police use of force following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. But just as much as the shooting could have been another act of a racially biased police officer, it could also have been a huge misunderstanding.
Jones was on his way home after a gig with a band
Jones was a musician who worked with a local housing authority and played drums for his church. As USA Today's Alcindor reported, Jones was reportedly on his way home to Boynton Beach, Florida, after a late-night gig with his band, the Future Prezidents, on Sunday, October 18, when his SUV broke down. He called one of his fellow band members to help, but they were unable to get the car started, so they called roadside assistance for help. Then, Jones waited.
According to the police report, Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja, who wasn't in uniform but was on duty, got out of his unmarked police van around 3:15 am to investigate what he believed was an abandoned vehicle. Jones, reportedly carrying a gun at the time, confronted Raja. The police officer shot Jones, killing him.
Jones's body was found about 80 to 100 feet away from his vehicle, and his gun was reportedly found between the vehicle and his body.
Jones reportedly bought a gun a year to a year and a half ago for self-protection, because he often played late-night gigs and carried expensive band equipment.
Raja was not wearing a body camera, and the Palm Beach Gardens's police cars are not outfitted with dashboard cameras, so the shooting was not caught on any police video. Raja was placed on paid administrative leave shortly after the shooting, but the police department fired him in November.
The simplest explanation for the events, as Reason's Scott Shackford wrote, is that it was all a horrific misunderstanding:
So should we apply Occam's Razor at this point and consider the likelihood that both men incorrectly identified the other as a potentially dangerous threat? Raja was not in a police uniform and was not in a marked police vehicle. If the police description is accurate, Raja didn't see or even realize Jones was there when he stopped his car and must have been startled. But what actually happened next is what we don't know.
Beyond what is obviously going to end up being a tragic and unnecessary death, here's what's worrisome: Let's assume everybody is being honest (I know it's difficult with the current level of police distrust), and let's assume Raja opened fire after seeing the gun for fear of his own safety. And let's assume the best of Jones, and the reason he had his gun out was for fear of his own safety being stranded on the side of the road. There has been presented so far no evidence that either of these men had any malicious intentions.
But it's also the case that black men like Jones are more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white peers — and racial bias, even subconscious prejudices, may play a role. That has driven some activists, under the banner of Black Lives Matter, to claim the shooting as yet another example of racial bias in the criminal justice system.
Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers
An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica's Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."
The disparities appear to be even starker for unarmed suspects, according to an analysis of 2015 police killings by the Guardian. Minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population and 46.6 percent of armed and unarmed victims, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police.
There have been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.
One possible explanation for the racial disparities: subconscious biases. Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting
Legally, what most matters in these shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat.
Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, told Vox's Dara Lind. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.
The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."
The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.
That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who'd survived his encounter with police officers, but who'd been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers' treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn't justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.
What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said.
In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.
For some critics, the question isn't what's legally justified but rather what's preventable."We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable," Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police "need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun," he added. "When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."
Police rarely get prosecuted for shootings
Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.
"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Vox's Amanda Taub. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."
If police are charged, they're very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
The numbers suggest that it would be a truly rare situation if the officer who shot and killed Jones were charged and convicted of a crime. But without a conviction, it's likely tensions will remain high as Jones's family and Black Lives Matter activists demand justice.