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Philando Castile Minnesota police shooting: officer cleared of manslaughter charge

Philando Castile and his mother, Valerie Castile.
Philando Castile and his mother, Valerie Castile.

The Minnesota police officer who drew widespread protests after he shot and killed Philando Castile has been found not guilty after being charged with second-degree manslaughter.

After 27 hours of deliberation, the jury found St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty for manslaughter, as well as two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm, according to the Star Tribune.

The July 2016 shooting captured nationwide attention after Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s fiancée, live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook. The image was grisly, showing a black man’s slumped, bloodied body — the result of yet another police shooting in America.

"He killed my boyfriend," Reynolds said. She claimed that police had opened fire when Castile reached for his driver’s license, as an officer requested: "He let the officer know that he had a firearm, and he was reaching for his wallet, and the officer just shot him in his arm."

Reynolds did not capture the exact moment of the shooting. But in an era in which police are under heightened scrutiny, Castile’s death was received as yet another example of the type of racial disparities in police use of force that have garnered national attention after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.

Philando Castile’s girlfriend claims Castile reached for his driver’s license — and police opened fire

Reynolds only broadcast the aftermath of the shooting, so we don’t have video of the actual moment of the shooting. But Reynolds said Castile reached for his driver’s license, after reportedly letting an officer know he had a legal gun. (Castile had a concealed carry permit, according to family.) The officer then allegedly opened fire.

"I told him not to reach for it," an officer claimed in the Facebook video. "I told him to get his hand out."

"You told him to get his ID, sir — his driver’s license," Reynolds replied. "Oh, my God. Please don’t tell me he’s dead. Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that."

The officer who shot Castile, who was identified as Jeronimo Yanez, and his backup, Joseph Kauser, were members of the St. Anthony Police Department. Both were put on administrative leave as an investigation was carried out by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, as is standard.

The lawyer representing Yanez told the Associated Press that Yanez "was reacting to the actions of the driver. This had nothing to do with race. This had everything to do with the presence of a gun." But Yanez's attorney did not elaborate on how, exactly, Castile displayed his weapon. Officials confirmed that a handgun was recovered from the scene.

A police radio call offered more details into why Castile was pulled over to begin with. The officer said Castile and his girlfriend "just look like people that were involved in a robbery." He added that Castile "looks more like one of our suspects, just 'cause of the wide-set nose."

"Y’all, please pray for us," Reynolds said at the end of the video. "I ask everybody on Facebook, everybody that’s watching, everybody that’s tuned in, please pray for us."

Pat Pheifer and Claude Peck reported for the Minnesota Star Tribune that Castile was 32 years old and had worked at the J.J. Hill school cafeteria for 12 to 15 years. He died at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis at 9:37 pm, a few minutes after he arrived.

Castile’s final traffic stop was far from his first. According to an NPR analysis, it was in fact his 46th stop — almost all of which were related to fairly minor traffic violations. To critics, Castile’s history shows one of the massive racial biases in policing: Black people are, in many jurisdictions, more likely to be stopped for traffic offenses. And with each of those stops, there’s a risk that the police encounter will escalate — potentially leading to a deadly shooting. When you put those two facts together, it helps explain one reason there are such big racial disparities in police use of force.

Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers

Police killings by race. Alvin Chang/Vox

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: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they're going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, to escalate into a violent confrontation.

That's not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, "There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates." That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.

One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: 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 potential 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

A police officer at a shooting range. Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

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 Amanda Taub for Vox. "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 and killed Castile were convicted of a crime. Particularly without video of the shooting, it’s just not clear if a jury will be convinced to convict.

Watch: Why recording the police is so important

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