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Baltimore County police shot Korryn Gaines — and a 5-year-old was caught in the crossfire

Baltimore County police killed 23-year-old Korryn Gaines after an hours-long standoff.
Baltimore County police killed 23-year-old Korryn Gaines after an hours-long standoff.

It began with police issuing an arrest warrant for low-level charges. But by the time it was over, after an hours-long standoff, Korryn Gaines was dead and her 5-year-old son was shot, sustaining non-life-threatening injuries.

It’s not exactly clear what happened during that hours-long standoff. Police have not said, for one, whether it was Gaines — a 23-year-old black woman who was allegedly carrying a shotgun — or the officers who shot the 5-year-old during a shootout. It’s also not clear if there is any video of the actual shooting as it unfolded, although Gaines posted some video of the events leading to the shooting on her social media accounts.

But news of the shooting quickly led to outrage, particularly from the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists who fight racial disparities in the criminal justice system. To many critics, it is just another example of an issue that quickly rose to the national spotlight after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.

The police shooting of Korryn Gaines: what we know

Two officers were serving an arrest warrant on Gaines — over low-level charges linked to a traffic stop earlier this year — at around 9:20 am Monday morning at an apartment in Randallstown, Maryland, according to Baltimore County police.

Police said Gaines barricaded herself with a shotgun at an apartment. For hours, police said they tried to talk her down. At one point, they obtained another warrant charging Gaines with first- and second-degree assault, obstructing and hindering, and resisting or interfering with arrest, according to court records reported by the Baltimore Sun. But, they said, Gaines repeatedly threatened the police and aimed her gun at them. At around 3 pm, she allegedly said, "If you don’t leave, I’m going to kill you."

An officer fired his weapon once, according to police. Gaines returned fire. Police then opened fire. By the time it was over, Gaines was dead and her 5-year-old son, Kodi, was injured.

The boy survived. The officers are on administrative leave as the shooting is investigated.

Police also said that a male suspect, who had a warrant for assault, tried to flee the apartment with a one-year-old child during the standoff. Police apprehended him.

"We are of course extremely upset at an event like this," police spokesperson Elise Armacost said at press conference, according to NBC News. "We do not like to be in a position of having to use lethal force, but this was a situation where our officers exercised patience for hours and hours."

There is no video, as far as we know, of the shooting itself. But Gaines posted a now-deleted video on her Instagram account, which seems to show some of the moments before the shooting:

According to the Baltimore Sun, Gaines had told police in a previous traffic stop that cops would have to "murder" her to get her out of her vehicle. The police report said Gaines had a cardboard sign on her car that stated, "Any Government official who compromises this pursuit to happiness and right to travel will be held criminally responsible and fined, as this is a natural right or freedom." This sounds a lot like what sovereign citizens argue — that they are entirely free from a government’s laws because the laws violate innate rights.

In that report, police also said that they had to call a tow truck to pick up Gaines’s car, which had no record of license plates or a required emissions check. As they waited, Gaines allegedly put two children that were in the vehicle on her lap. When police arrested her, "they had to remove the infant from her arms and physically pull her out of the car," Colin Campbell reported for the Baltimore Sun. That is somewhat similar to what police said happened at Gaines’s apartment with her five-year-old son.

In previous social media posts, Gaines also posted a video of herself loading a shotgun. She wrote, "Gotta thank my dad for teaching me how to protect myself."

Gaines reportedly suffered from lead poisoning, according to the Washington Post, which may help explain aggressive or erratic behavior. Black Americans are disproportionately likely to be afflicted by lead contamination.

So far, we only know what police have said about the shooting. For many Black Lives Matter activists, this is as good as knowing nothing. Trust in the police is fairly low in black communities to begin with. But over the past few years, several police accounts of shootings or killings have also fallen apart when interrogated with video evidence — making it especially hard for activists and protesters to take cops at their word.

Racial justice advocates also argue that, although Gaines appeared to act erratically, the situation didn’t have to end with her dead — if police continued to try to deescalate and never fired the first shot.

The Gaines story is also, in some ways, frighteningly familiar. In several of the police shootings over the past few years — most recently the shooting of Philando Castile — America has heard of otherwise normal stops or arrests escalating out of control. This stop began with an arrest warrant for low-level charges — and ended up with a woman dead and a 5-year-old child hurt.

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: 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

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

Legally, what most matters in police shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in immediate danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat. So in the Gaines case, the question isn’t whether Gaines truly threatened the officers, but whether the officers genuinely believed she 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 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 Gaines were convicted of a crime. In this case, the family doesn’t even 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.

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