Two Shootings, 1,000 Miles And 2 Days Apart, Bring Police Misconduct Back Into The Spotlight
Two incidents that occurred some two days and roughly 1,200 miles apart are bringing the twin issues of police overreach and the disparate treatment of African-Americans back into the limelight and suggesting yet again that this is a problem that has yet to be seriously dealt with. In both cases, the men were engaged in seemingly innocent behavior when confronted by police in a hostile manner that quite clearly suggests that officers had already made the decision about how they were going to handle the situation before truly evaluating the situation fairly based on the available evidence.
In the most recent incident last night near St. Paul, Minnesota, a 32 year old African-American man named Philandro Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop that was live-streamed by the man’s girlfriend:
Minnesota’s governor called on Thursday for a federal investigation into the shooting of a black man by a police officer during a traffic stop near St. Paul, after millions of people watched the bloody, dying man in a grisly video recorded by his girlfriend and streamed live moments after the shooting.
The deadly encounter Wednesday night in the city of Falcon Heights was at least the second shooting this week of a black man by police officers, after the killing of a man in Baton Rouge during an attempted arrest, and parts of both encounters were recorded on video.
The graphic video from Minnesota showed Philando Castile, 32, who had been shot several times, slumping against the woman who was recording the scene. As she did so, her 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat and an officer stood just outside the driver’s side window, still aiming his gun at the mortally wounded man at point-blank range.
The video is all the more shocking for the calm, clear narration of the woman, Diamond Reynolds, who states that Mr. Castile had done nothing wrong, and the fact that she streamed it live on Facebook. Ms. Reynolds gave her account of what had happened, stating again and again that Mr. Castile had just been reaching for his driver’s license and registration — as the officer had requested — when the officer opened fire.
“Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him,” she said. “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
Ms. Reynolds’s daughter appears several times in the video. Near the end of the 10-minute clip, as the two are sitting in the back of a police car, and Ms. Reynolds becomes increasingly distraught, the girl comforts her mother. “It’s O.K., Mommy,” she says. “It’s O.K. I’m right here with you.”
As the video circulated widely on social media, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul during the night and Thursday morning, demanding accountability for the officers involved. Some voiced anger that Gov. Mark Dayton did not respond faster, but late Thursday morning, the governor emerged to speak with protesters. Rumors circulated on social media that he had been evacuated from the mansion during the night, but the governor’s office said that was not the case.
Thirteen hours after the shooting, Mr. Dayton, a Democrat, released his first statement on the incident, saying that he had spoken with a White House official to request a Justice Department investigation. Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, had called for the Justice Department to investigate earlier Thursday. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is already investigating.
The governor said, “I will do everything in my power to help protect the integrity of that investigation, to ensure a proper and just outcome for all involved.”
The video of the shooting, which occurred around 9 p.m., passed rapidly among Twitter, Facebook and YouTube users, becoming significant news online before traditional outlets — even those in the Minneapolis area — caught up.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, Ms. Reynolds said that Mr. Castile, a cafeteria supervisor for the St. Paul Public Schools, had just come from having his hair done for his birthday when they were pulled over on Larpenteur Avenue, a major east-west street.
Falcon Heights is a small, predominantly white and middle-class city of about 5,500 residents, bordering St. Paul on the northwest. The two officers who stopped them were from the nearby city of St. Anthony, which provides police services under contract to Falcon Heights, and one officer approached Mr. Castile, who was driving, and said he had a broken taillight, Ms. Reynolds, who is also black, said.
“He tells us to put our hands in the air, we have our hands in the air,” she said. “At the time as our hands is in the air, he asked for license and registration.
“My boyfriend carries all his information in a thick wallet in his right side back pocket. As he’s reaching for his back pocket wallet, he lets the officer know, ‘Officer, I have a firearm on me.’ I began to yell, ‘But he’s licensed to carry.’ After that, he began to take off shots – bah, bah, bah, bah, ‘Don’t move! Don’t move!’ But how can you not move when you’re asking for license and registration? It’s either you want my hands in the air or you want my identification.”
In the video, she says repeatedly that her boyfriend had been shot several times while reaching for his license, and that he had told officers before the shooting that he had a gun in the car.
In the background, one of the officers can be heard shouting: “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hands up.”
The video begins with images of Mr. Castile, who appears to be moaning and moving slightly, his left arm and left side bloody. Ms. Reynolds then pans the camera to her face and says matter-of-factly, “They killed my boyfriend.” Looking into the camera, she says that Mr. Castile had told officers that he was carrying a weapon — she says he was licensed to do so — and that he was following instructions to produce his license and registration when he was shot.
Jon Mangseth, interim police chief of St. Anthony, confirmed the fatal shooting but said he could not provide any details, and said that the officer had been put on administrative leave. He declined to identify the officers, but said that the one who fired — whom Ms. Reynolds described as Asian-American — had been with the department for more than five years.
“We haven’t had an officer-involved shooting in 30 years or more,” he told reporters at the shooting scene early Thursday. “It’s shocking. It’s not something that occurs in this area often.”
In the Facebook video shot by Ms. Reynolds — who uses the name Lavish Reynolds on line — an officer can be heard telling her to keep her hands on the wheel, and she replies: “I will, sir. No worries. I will.”
Moments later, her voice shaking, the woman says: “Oh, my God, please don’t tell me he’s gone. Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that.”
Then: “Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please, Officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him.”
An officer issues an order “to get the female passenger out.”
“Exit now,” she is told, “and keep them up.” She asks for her daughter.
The video was briefly removed from Facebook but was later restored with a graphic warning attached.
At one point, the video goes dark as the woman is handcuffed and moved to a police vehicle, although it continues to capture an audio feed as the woman prays for the man’s life.
Chief Mangseth said Mr. Castile had been transported to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he died Wednesday night. No officers were injured, he said.
Here’s the video that Castile’s girlfriend shot and livestreamed on Facebook. It appears to begin shortly after Castile was shot and continue for several minutes thereafter. As the warning indicates it is graphic, so be warned in that regard:
The incident in Minnesota occurred just two days after another African-American man, Alton Sterling, was shot to death during a police confrontation outside a market in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a case that has already prompted Justice Department intervention:
BATON ROUGE, La. — The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation on Wednesday into the fatal shooting of a black man by the Baton Rouge, La., police after a searing video of the encounter, aired repeatedly on television and social media, reignited contentious issues surrounding police killings of African-Americans.
Officials from Gov. John Bel Edwards to the local police and elected officials vowed a complete and transparent investigation and appealed to the city — after a numbing series of high-profile, racially charged incidents elsewhere — to remain calm.
“I have full confidence that this matter will be investigated thoroughly, impartially and professionally,” Mr. Edwards said in announcing the federal takeover of the case. “I have very serious concerns. The video is disturbing, to say the least.”
Urging patience while the investigation takes place, the governor said: “I know that that may be tough for some, but it’s essential that we do that. I know that there are protests going on, but it’s urgent that they remain peaceful.”
Two white officers were arresting Alton B. Sterling, 37, early Tuesday after responding to a call about an armed man. The officers had Mr. Sterling pinned to the ground when at least one of them shot him.
The video of the shooting propelled the case to national attention, like a string of recorded police shootings before it. The shooting has prompted protests here in the Louisiana capital, including a vigil with prayers and gospel music that drew hundreds of people Wednesday night to the storefront where it happened.
On Tuesday, a person called the police to report that a black man in a red shirt selling music CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart had threatened him with a gun, the Police Department said. Two officers confronted Mr. Sterling about 12:35 a.m.
Mr. Sterling had a long criminal history, including convictions for battery and illegal possession of a gun, but it is not clear whether the officers knew any of that as they tried to arrest him.
The graphic cellphone video shot by a bystander, which was released later in the day, shows an officer pushing Mr. Sterling onto the hood of the car and then tackling him to the ground. He is held to the pavement by two officers, and one appears to hold a gun above Mr. Sterling’s chest.
At one point someone on the video can be heard saying, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” and one officer can be seen pulling his weapon. After some shouting, what sound like gunshots can be heard and the camera shifts away, and then there are more apparent gunshots.
A second video of the shooting, filmed by the owner of the store and first posted by the local newspaper, The Advocate, on Wednesday afternoon, showed the shooting from a different angle. It also shows one of the officers taking something out of Mr. Sterling’s pocket after he was shot and was lying on the ground.
Witnesses have said they saw a handgun on the ground next to him. Mr. Jordan, the lawyer, said Mr. Sterling’s relatives were not aware of him owning a gun.
Arthur Reed, the founder of Stop the Killing, the group that released the cellphone video, said he saw a gun only after Mr. Sterling had been fatally shot. The group, a mentoring program for youths, had heard reports on a police scanner about an arrest at the store, and showed up to gather video for potential use in a documentary about urban violence.
Mr. Reed said the group decided to release its video after he heard that the police had accused Mr. Sterling of reaching for a gun.
“He never reached in the video,” Mr. Reed said. “He never did anything.”
Here are the two videos that have been released of the Sterling shooting.
In addition to these videos, there is also believed to be dash-cam video from the officer’s patrol car and video obtain from surveillance cameras outside of the market where this shooting occurred. Additionally, there were originally reports that at least one of the officers involved had been wearing a body camera during the incident but that their body camera had allegedly either malfunctioned or fallen off his uniform during the confrontation, meaning that it did not record the majority of the confrontation between Sterling and the police. The surveillance video from the market has already been taken into custody by officials investigating the shooting and has not yet been released to the public, though the market owner said that he believed that the cameras very likely would have captured the entire incident based on where they were positioned.
It is important to keep in mind that it’s still early in the investigation of both of these cases, and that the facts in both cases are different and therefore may end up being evaluated differently. In the Sterling case, there were apparently reports of a man with a gun outside the market that led to police showing up on the scene. Whether or not those reports are true, and whether or not that man was Sterling, is completely unknown at this point. By all accounts, Sterling was regularly outside this market selling DVDs and Compact Discs, with the permission of the market owner and it’s not at all clear that doing that was in any way illegal or that Sterling had had any previous confrontations with police at this location. As noted, it’s also unclear if police knew about Sterling’s previous criminal record before the shooting, although if they did that still would be insufficient to justify an otherwise unjustifiable shooting. Moreover, based on the videos that have been shared to date it appears that Sterling was shot after police had him on the ground and mostly under their physical control. If that’s the case, then it’s hard to imagine any scenario where the shooting was justified.
Where the Sterling case is a hazy at this early stage of the investigation, the Castile case seems much more straightforward. If the statements of Castile’s girlfriend are accurate, then he was shot while reaching for his license and registration as the officer had requested after having informed the officer that he was licensed to carry a gun and that he did have the gun on him. It appears that it was at that point that the officer shot him at close range and then continued to hold a gun on the injured Castile and his girlfriend even as Castile was bleeding profusely from his wounds. At no point during this part of the confrontation does officer or anyone with him attempt to apply pressure or otherwise suppress the bleeding, and one imagines that Castile lost a tremendous amount of blood during the time that officers waited to apply any kind of first aid.
As I said, these are two different cases and need to be treated as such, It may turn out that there was a justified shooting in one case, but on the other, that neither shooting can be legally justified based on the facts and the evidence, or that both cases fall into the category of legally justified police shootings for which there will be no punishment. Based on what I’ve seen on the videos and the statements from witnesses that we’re aware of, the Castile shooting seems highly questionable even when viewed in a light most favorable to the officers involved. The Sterling shooting is complicated by the fact that officers were responding to reports of an armed man making threats, but even there the fact that Sterling clearly seems to be largely under control of the arresting officer when he was shot makes it difficult to justify the shooting. In both cases, it seems clear that police were acting with the same ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality that has governed so many of these cases, especially when African-American men are involved. We’ve known it was a problem for some time now, and yet nothing ever gets done about it. Indeed, if it weren’t for these advances in video technology we likely wouldn’t know about these cases at all.
As I said, the investigations need to be allowed to proceed forward in both cases and the chips allowed to fall where they may. But if you can’t understand why so many African-Americans are angry about this issue after watching these videos, then you’re just being willfully blind.
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