The police killing of concealed carry permit holder Philando Castile is a troubling, for a variety of reasons, as are the killings of the 5 police officers in Dallas, TX that soon followed.
Background on the Philando Castile killing by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez
Philando Castile was a 32 year old African-American school employee who was driving in a suburb of Minneapolis, MN on July 6, 2016. He had been a straight-A student in high school, and his only involvement with the legal system had been for minor traffic offenses. The police had stopped Castile over 50 times in the past, and about half of those citations had later been dismissed. In the passenger seat was his girlfriend, and in the back seat was her child. According to Castile’s girlfriend, he was pulled over for having a broken tail light, at which point Castile informed police officer Yanez that he had a concealed carry permit and was carrying, at which point the officer told Castile not to move, Castile put his hands up, and the officer fired multiple shots that struck and mortally wounded Castile. Castile’s girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting, during which time the officers did not attempt to provide medical aid to Castile as he was dying in the car for about 10 minutes. Castile’s girlfriend was arrested and held for hours, and then released. No drugs, evidence of other crimes, etc., were reportedly found in Castile’s car.
The investigation into Castile’s death is ongoing and it will be some time before all the facts are known. However, the uncontroverted facts that have been released thus far do shed a good deal of light on the situation.
Castile was a concealed carry permit holder, which means he was not a felon or otherwise disqualified from possessing a gun. Indeed, the facts show that he was a gainfully employed law-abiding citizen who worked at a school and had been a good student himself. He had also been stopped by the police over 50 times in the last decade and a half, and had never before harmed a police officer or been in trouble for anything more serious than traffic offenses. The police have not claimed that they found drugs or any other evidence of criminality in his car or on his body. Castile’s girlfriend’s statements say that Castile was complying with the officer and had volunteered that he was lawfully carrying a gun. Against that backdrop it defies logic to think that Castile instigated this situation, as it would be out of character and would accomplish nothing for him to do so. Instead, the facts would seem to suggest that Castile’s girlfriend’s version of events are accurate.
Racism and policing in general
Much has been written over the years about police across the country targeting minorities for traffic stops that they would not make if the driver or other vehicle occupant were not a minority, and excessive force that is applied in some of those stops. Racial profiling is something that police (unlawfully) engage in with depressing regularity. Police departments routinely also withhold evidence that shows officer misconduct. Prosecutors who handle police shootings often bend over backwards to avoid having the officer charged, affording the officer a level of deference and protection that is not afforded to ordinary citizens.
Speaking from personal experience, I, an African-American male, have been stopped dozens of times by the police without having committed any traffic infraction. Those traffic stops were by white police officers who were most interested in using the stop as an opportunity to get my ID so as to go on a fishing expedition to see if I had an arrest warrant, and to continue that fishing expedition by asking me if I had anything unlawful in the car (as they looked around for anything unlawful in plain sight).
My wife is white. We dated for about 8 years before marrying, and for the first few years she was never in the car with me during a traffic stop. There had been occasions where I had been late arriving somewhere and told her how a bogus traffic stop had delayed me, but it was not until she actually saw racial profiling first hand that it really seemed to sink in for her. That was in the summer between my 2nd and 3rd years of law school, when we lived in Oak Park, Illinois and were driving through the neighboring suburb of Forrest Park, Illinois. We were in her car, as her full-sized Oldsmobile sedan was better suited to the trip to Walmart for some furniture than my much-smaller vehicle. She had one of those evergreen tree air fresheners hanging from her rear view mirror, just like she had done for years and years in that car and her previous cars. [As a law student who knew that such things hanging from rear view mirrors were often used by police officers as pretext to stop a car, I had warned her about that but she liked her air freshener and kept it there.] As we were on the way to Walmart – with her driving – she is pulled over by a police officer who is more concerned about getting my ID and asking me questions than he was with her. After the officer was satisfied that I was a law student and not someone he had a basis to arrest, he left without writing any tickets. Over the next 18 hours or so, she went through a mini version of the stages of grief as she finally had first-hand experience with the sort of police profiling that I had experienced for years (and continue to experience to this day). Recognizing the reality of racism and how pervasive it is can be difficult for those who have not experienced it themselves. Although Newt Gingrich is not my favorite politician by a long-shot, his remarks last week about racism were quite insightful and correct.
As an attorney, I have handled multiple cases in Iowa and Illinois where the video evidence showed that my client was improperly stopped by the police on a made-up accusation that was really just a pretext for the police officer to identify and search my client, and then arrest them on a bogus charge. I have seen such cases proceed to court, and I have seen judges find that the police officer’s statements were not credible and then dismiss the case against my client, after seeing the video evidence flatly contradict the officer’s sworn testimony. Not once have I seen the prosecutor charge the officer with perjury. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that racism is alive and well in this country and that a great many police officers intentionally act in a racist manner.
Beyond intentional racism is the problem of implicit bias. “Unlike explicit bias (which reflects the attitudes or beliefs that one endorses at a conscious level), implicit bias is the bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes (e.g., implicit attitudes and implicit stereotypes) that often operate at a level below conscious awareness and without intentional control. The underlying implicit attitudes and stereotypes responsible for implicit bias are those beliefs or simple associations that a person makes between an object and its evaluation that “…are automatically activated by the mere presence (actual or symbolic) of the attitude object” (Dovidio, Gaertner, Kawakami, & Hudson, 2002, p. 94; also Banaji & Heiphetz, 2010).” So, while many people do not think of themselves as racists and do not believe they are making decisions based upon racism, they may do so due to implicit bias that they do not even know they have.
Harvard University has done much research on the issue of implicit bias, and has produced online tests that will quantify a person’s implicit bias (or lack thereof). The results are truly amazing (and depressing). I strongly encourage everyone to take a few minutes to participate in the test and see how they score. Indeed, I have seen results from many people who are close to me at work and personally, and the overwhelming majority have results that show implicit racial bias against black people (and other biases too). I do not believe that close friends/family or employees with whom I have worked for years are intentionally racist after they have scored an implicit bias test result that showed that they had implicit bias against black people. I do, however, believe that for all the reasons discussed more fully in the implicit bias research, implicit bias is real and affects the decisions made by everyone (including police officers).
The effect that killings by the police have upon the credibility of police
What I discussed above regarding my personal interactions with the police and what I have seen as an attorney only scratches the surface. There are many more personal examples I could give if I were inclined to make this longer-than-normal post even longer. There are even more examples from my work as an attorney that I could give if it were not for attorney-client privilege preventing such disclosures. The fact is that I have seen enough police misconduct – and enough other police officers who turned a blind eye to their colleagues misconduct – that I do not tend to trust the police. Rather, I see the police as people who are likely to cause me unwarranted hassle at best, and who may very well pose a deadly threat.
That is not to say that I hate every police officer or wish them harm. I have had police officers provide help after my car had been hit by a drunk driver. I have had police respond to (false) burglar alarms at my home and office. However, a few nice interactions does not counter the unpleasant interactions, just as most people who have been stung by a bee will be wary around bees – even though the overwhelming majority of bees that a person has seen will not actually sting that person. Applied to the police, that experience of being stopped wrongfully with the specter of being the next black person who is shot and killed outweighs the positive interactions I have had with police.
The (non-existent) “war on police” and the killing of 5 Dallas, TX police officers
Shortly after the killing of Philando Castile (and another black male by the police elsewhere), 5 Dallas, Texas police officers were shot and killed by a black Army veteran (Micah Xavier Johnson) who was angered by the killing of black people by police. His social media posts and past statements had made clear that he distrusted the police deeply. Micah Johnson’s stated goal was to kill “white people, particularly police officers,” and he laughed about doing so when he spoke with the police after the shootings. In doing so, Micah Johnson committed a terribly wrongful act for which there is no excuse or justification.
Obviously it was wrong for Micah Johnson to target “white people” as a person’s race should never be the basis for killing. Race is something we are born with, and as such it does not reflect our beliefs or thoughts or actions. That is indeed why discrimination based upon race is so terrible, since race has no bearing upon someone as a person. The fact that Micah Johnson was able to recognize that racist actions on the part of the police were wrong, but failed to get that he was being racist in his murdering spree, is sadly ironic.
Targeting the police is wrong for similar (but not identical) reasons. It is wrong, obviously, because murder is wrong. It is wrong because it deprives those officers of their lives and causes devastating harm to their families. It is wrong because killing a person for no reason other than their lawful occupation is wrong. However, it would be inaccurate to equate race-based discrimination to occupation-based discrimination. That is, again, because race is something that we are all born with that bears no indication of our personality or character. A person’s occupation, on the other hand, is something that the person chooses, and it is reasonable to draw some conclusions based upon the choices that led a person to select and continue an occupation. Since I am an attorney, it is fair for a person to presume that I have a higher-than-average willingness to spend time reading, writing, arguing, and handling adversarial situations where it is a battle of knowledge. It is fair to believe that a doctor or nurse enjoys healing people. It would be fair to presume that a mixed martial arts fighter enjoys physical challenges and confrontation, and doesn’t particularly mind it when people try to hit them. A police officer patrolling the road necessary has selected a job that involves stopping people who were going about their day with the implicit threat that if they do not comply with the officer’s instructions, they will be arrested or shot. While there are police officers who take such a job with the goal of protecting citizens from criminals, their work necessarily has an element of exerting force and control over people, often over petty things (such as minor speeding tickets that are nothing more than a means of generating revenue and that do not improve road safety). There are also other police officers who seek out the occupation specifically because they enjoy exercising that power. Regardless, it is a choice to seek any occupation, and some reasonable conclusions can be drawn about a person based upon that choice. I note this only because it would be an error to confuse race-based profiling that is inherently inaccurate and wrongful with occupational profiling that may have a legitimate role in some situation. Regardless, that legitimate role is not in selecting people to murder, as there shouldn’t be such a selection process at all as there should be no murdering.
But, while there is no excuse or justification for the killing of the Dallas police officers, it is not difficult to see how it is that such a killing occurred. Here, the killer of the Dallas police officers – Micah Xavier Johnson – was so upset by the deaths of minorities at the hands of police that he was willing to commit murder and lose his life in the process, to make a point. That willingness of humans to do terrible things and give up their own life for a cause they believe in is the same thing that has driven every religious war, modern terrorism, and a whole host of other world events over the course of history. Any person who has spent even a brief amount of time studying history and psychology should not be surprised by this sort of an outcome, and should understand that such actions are likely to be repeated by a small number of similarly disenfranchised people so long as the conditions that they find to be intolerable persist. To ignore that fact is to hide one’s head in the sand. Indeed, one only need wonder why it is that there are protests and people upset with the police, yet you do not see similar protests about bakers, welders, fire fighters, accountants, veterinarians, etc. It is the actions of some bad police officers, and the decisions of other police officers to turn a blind eye to their coworkers’ actions, that have produced that situation.
Finally, it is important to note that even with the tragic killings of the Dallas police officers, there is no war on the police. Despite a rise in the number of police in the USA (and an increase in the country’s population), the number of police killed each year has gone down over the last few decades:
Data from the Officers Down Memorial Page, which tracks law enforcement officer fatalities in real time, illustrates the point. During the Reagan years, for instance, an average of 101 police officers were intentionally killed each year. Under George H.W. Bush that number fell to 90. It fell further, to 81 deaths per year, under Clinton, and to 72 deaths per year under George W. Bush. Under Obama, the average number of police intentionally killed each year has fallen to its lowest level yet — an average of 62 deaths annually through 2015. If you include the 2016 police officer shootings year-to-date and project it out to a full year, that average of 62 deaths doesn’t change.
How this all fits together with gun rights
President Obama, predictably, blamed “easy access to guns” for police shootings and racial issues. Such a claim just doesn’t hold water. The fact is that many areas of the country have a great many gun owners, and essentially 0 wrongful police shootings. It is not ownership of guns that leads to such killing on the part of police. Rather, President Obama’s desire to blame guns for the intentional actions of humans continues to impede the process of solving the root causes of such violence (to include the racism discussed above).
Indeed, civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the value of gun ownership. In the landmark Supreme Court decision of McDonald v. Chicago, African-American Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas discussed how gun control laws were historically intended to ensure that black people were denied the ability to have a gun to free themselves from slavery or defend themselves after slavery. That trend of gun control laws being targeted at minorities continues today, which is why the NRA has spent a great deal of its time and money (successfully) fighting to eliminate such anti-gun laws that target minorities.
Similarly, gun bans are not a solution to the (rare) killings of police officers. We need only look to Britain to see that gun bans don’t stop criminals from getting guns. If casual criminals cannot be stopped, then surely those such as the killer in Dallas who had Army training and meticulously planned out and executed the killings of police officers will not be stopped by such a gun ban.