North Miami, Florida, police officers shot an unarmed black man as he reportedly held his hands up in the air while lying on the ground.
The victim, therapist Charles Kinsey, was apparently helping an autistic patient on whom someone called 911 prior to the shooting. Local station WSVN released a cellphone recording of the moments before the shooting on Wednesday evening.
"I’m like this right here," Kinsey recounted to WSVN, with his arms in the air. "And when he shot me, it was so surprising. I thought it was a mosquito bite. And when it hit me, I had my hands in the air. And I’m thinking, ‘I just got shot!’ And I’m saying, ‘Sir, why did you shoot me?’ And his words to me were, ‘I don’t know.’"
The North Miami police officers' union says the officer who fired the shot was aiming for the patient, who they thought was armed, and not Kinsey, NBC News reported Thursday. The patient, however, had a toy truck.
The shooting is already drawing widespread attention, with WSVN’s tweet receiving thousands of retweets just hours after it went up on Wednesday night. For the Black Lives Matter movement, the shooting is just another example of the kind of racial disparities in police use of force that have gained a national spotlight in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
Charles Kinsey was reportedly trying to help an autistic patient when he was shot
Before the shooting, North Miami police said they received a 911 call about a man walking around with a gun threatening to kill himself. The man turned out to be an autistic 23-year-old man who was holding a toy truck after leaving his group home.
Kinsey tried to help the patient and retrieve him back to the group home. But then cops arrived, aiming rifles at both Kinsey and the patient, telling them to get on the ground. "When I went to the ground, I went to the ground with my hands up," Kinsey told WSVN, holding his arms up. "And I am laying there just like this, telling them again there is no need for firearms. He is autistic. He has a toy truck in his hand."
The cellphone video shows Kinsey lying on the ground, with his arms up, shouting to police, "All he has is a toy truck in his hand. A toy truck. I am a behavior therapist at a group home."
"I was really more worried about him than myself," he told WSVN. "I was thinking as long as I have my hands up … they’re not going to shoot me. This is what I’m thinking — they’re not going to shoot me. Wow, was I wrong."
According to WPLG, police officers thought the toy truck was a gun. But it’s not clear why they opened fire, or whether they meant to shoot Kinsey.
Police reportedly shot Kinsey in the leg, although the video cuts out before the shooting. After the shooting, Kinsey said, police cuffed him as he bled.
The North Miami Police Department has not commented further on the shooting. But the department placed the officer who shot Kinsey on administrative leave, and an investigation is underway with the help of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.
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."
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."
Part of the solution to this type of bias is better training that helps cops acknowledge and deal with their potential subconscious prejudices. But critics also argue that more accountability could help deter future brutality or excessive use of force, since it would make it clear that there are consequences to the misuse and abuse of police powers. Yet right now, lax legal standards make it difficult to legally punish individual police officers for use of force, even when it might be excessive.
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.
In the 1980s, a pair of Supreme Court decisions — Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor — set up a framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.
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 statistics suggest that it would be a truly rare situation if the officer who shot Kinsey were convicted of a crime. But he does have the advantage of video footage, which persuaded prosecutors before to press charges for the police shootings of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.