Thurman Blevins’s last words as he was chased by police were pleas for mercy. “Please don’t shoot me,” he said. “Leave me alone.”
Minneapolis police on Sunday released videos of the June 23 shooting of the 31-year-old black man. Then, on Monday, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that the officers involved in the shooting will not face charges.
The shooting had previously drawn hundreds out to local protests over what many saw as another unnecessary shooting of a black man in America.
According to the video, two police officers found Blevins in a residential area, while they were reportedly responding to a 911 call that someone was firing a gun into the air. The police officers, Justin Schmidt and Ryan Kelly, quickly and vocally identified that Blevins had a firearm. They got out of their car, telling him, “Put your fucking hands up.” Blevins began to run, and police chased him — telling him to put his hands up and that they would shoot him. Blevins claimed he didn’t do anything and didn’t have a gun.
Blevins continued to flee. At one point, he appeared to pull an object — identified as a gun by police — out of his shorts, and police officers opened fire, killing him. The video doesn’t make it clear if Blevins fired a weapon.
Warning: graphic footage of a shooting:
Prior to the shooting, a woman had called in 911 to report that someone appeared to be drunk while firing a gun. The caller said the shooter had a bottle of gin. Schmidt and Kelly verbally identified a bottle of gin and a gun when they found Blevins.
Police released the videos over the weekend, including versions of the videos that were slowed down to highlight the object that Blevins was carrying, which police claim was a gun, and certainly looks like a gun in the footage.
Freeman, the local prosecutor, argued that the events depicted in the video show the shooting was justified.
“When Mr. Blevins fled from the officers with a loaded handgun, refused to follow their commands for him to stop and show his hands and then took the gun out of his pocket and turned toward the officers, Mr. Blevins represented a danger to the lives of Officer Schmidt and Officer Kelly,” Freeman said in a statement. “Their decision to use deadly force against Mr. Blevins under those circumstances was authorized by Minn. Stat. § 609.066 and as such there is no basis to issue criminal charges against either officer.”
But protests over the shooting continue. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to bring attention to racial disparities in police use of force, and as protests reveal inconsistencies or outright lies in police claims, there is a huge level of distrust toward law enforcement among minority communities.
The video footage was released after criticisms and protests
Prior to the release of the video, there were conflicting reports about the Blevins shooting. Police claimed he had a gun, while some witnesses reportedly said he did not.
This uncertainty helped fuel the protests. But there have also been other shootings in Minneapolis and the surrounding area that have stoked further concerns about local police in the past few years, including the killings of Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, and Justine Damond.
As Minneapolis NAACP president Leslie Badue told MPR News, “Honestly, I don’t know what’s going through the community’s minds, but I do know that we continue to be traumatized one time after another. It’s extremely unfortunate.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced earlier this month that his office would release video of the shooting by the end of July after facing calls to do so from protesters and city council members, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He described the video as “traumatic.”
“Regardless of the facts and circumstances that took place on the afternoon of June 23, and regardless of how our own life experiences and backgrounds inform the conclusions we draw, let us all recognize one conclusion: a life was lost, and that, in and of itself, is a tragedy,” Frey said at a news conference on Sunday. “While the body camera footage is now released, this is just one part of an effort to bring greater transparency to these processes. In the weeks and months ahead, we will undoubtedly learn more. In this quest to bring about greater transparency, there will be pain.”
Frey, who is white, added, “I did not experience the pain of inequities that continue to exist in areas well beyond policing and public safety. But we all need to understand that this pain is felt acutely by people of color. That must be acknowledged.”
The Minneapolis Police Department said in a statement that Police Chief Medaria Arradondo can’t comment on the shooting while it’s under investigation, but “he will continue to remain engaged, active and listen throughout the community.”
Following the release of the videos, the community remained split. Some argued that the footage showed the shooting was justified, while others said that officers should have worked to deescalate the situation. More protests over the shooting are planned for this week.
Minority communities often don’t trust the police
A host of issues have created rifts between police and minority communities across the US.
First, there are racial disparities in police shootings. Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.
There have also been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray died while in police custody — leading to protests and riots. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager shot 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.
It’s these statistics and high-profile shootings that drive much of the distrust in minority communities toward the police.
A 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 previously told me, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”
There’s also evidence that police do a poor job protecting black communities from serious crime. Wesley Lowery, Kimbriell Kelly, and Steven Rich recently reported for the Washington Post, based on an analysis of killings over the past decade in 52 of the US’s largest cities: “Black victims, who accounted for the majority of homicides, were the least likely of any racial group to have their killings result in an arrest, The Post found. While police arrested someone in 63 percent of the killings of white victims, they did so in just 47 percent of those with black victims.”
As journalist Jill Leovy explained in her award-winning book Ghettoside, the racial disparity reflects a lack of resources going to solving murders, particularly in minority communities. Community distrust can also play a role, since it makes it harder for police to get cooperating witnesses needed to solve murders; in this way, community distrust and poor murder solve rates feed into each other — people are less likely to cooperate with police when they feel unprotected by the law, and police are less able to protect people without cooperation. All of this together leads to fewer arrests when black people are the victims.
Leovy wrote: “Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
The result is less trust in the police.
To alleviate distrust, experts have put forward a lot of solutions — including a genuine acknowledgment of and apology for past racism, better training to help cops confront potential biases and deescalate situations, and use of better, evidence-based police tactics, such as focused deterrence and hot spot policing, that can bring down crime in minority communities without making the communities feel harassed.
But experts 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 police shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in immediate 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, previously told Dara Lind for Vox. 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, previously said.
In general, officers are given a 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 previously headed 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 are rarely 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, previously 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 officers who shot and killed Blevins were charged and convicted of a crime.