It’s getting to be too common these days for the news to erupt with the latest officer involved shooting. Two days in a row this week. Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5th and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on Wednesday July 6th. Then, because things weren’t bad enough, Micah Xavier decided to use the deaths of Sterling and Castile as an excuse to shoot and kill cops in Dallas, Texas.
They are all horrible events, and the facts are bound to get all mixed up so we won’t really know what happened. Not that we ever really know what happened. The initial reporting in all three events focused on how horrible the situation was with one side being pure evil and the other pure innocence. Yeah I didn’t believe that for a minute. That doesn’t mean I liked the way the next day’s reporting had the roles reversed. Sometime, in the future, hopefully we can figure things out and realize we don’t need pure evil vs pure innocence in these stories.
Philando Castile, may have been a suspect in an armed robbery – that doesn’t justify shooting him. He did have a gun, he said so. He also had the legal right to that gun. He had a permit, it was licensed and everything. We’re never going to know if he was intending to use it that night. Four shots into his chest made his intentions moot.
Officer Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who fired, will undoubtedly use the story that he felt threatened by Castile. He probably did. The question is why? Was he genuinely afraid that Castile would use the gun he’d just announced he had, or was he afraid because of the narrative prevalent in our society that black men are dangerous? My guess, it’s a combination. There had been an armed robbery nearby a couple of days before – which would put the cops on alert. Castile, according to Officer Yanez, matched the description of one of the robbers. Yet another reason to be on edge.
Let me make this clear. There’s a difference between explanations and excuses.
Knowing everyone’s state of mind is an explanation. It doesn’t excuse the four shots fired into Castile’s chest. There were other options. A shot to the arm would have prevented Castile from pulling the gun without killing him. A couple of extra seconds to be sure of Castile’s actions might have prevented the need for shooting at all. Castile might have been able to change the outcome, too. The video didn’t start until he was already unresponsive, so we don’t know how he responded to Officer Yanez’s orders.
All these same questions could be asked in all the other Officer Involved Shootings. I’m focusing on this one because it happened right across the street from where I used to live. I still know people who live in my old apartment building. I didn’t need the news to tell me where it happened because I recognized the area from the video of the event. It hits close to home. It makes me sit up and take notice that this isn’t just an “out there somewhere” problem, but one that’s right here. A couple of years ago, I could have been one of the witnesses. I could have been in that car.
I’m lucky. I don’t live there anymore. I’m white. Most encounters I’ve had with officers of the law have ended with smiles and “thank you”s. My experience lets me believe that most officers have their hearts in the right places. But hearts in the right places isn’t enough when young men like Philando Castile die at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. We need something more than just good intentions. We need to break the narrative of the dangerous black man. We need to get to a place where everyone can believe that officers have their hearts and heads in the right places.