Last summer Philando Castille, a young black man, was shot and killed by a police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, in late evening, around nine o’clock, for a traffic stop … a broken taillight. Seven Bullets. A woman in the car live-streamed video immediately after the shooting … in it one can see the arms of the police officer, his hands, his gun.
Predictably, the killing sparked a public protest and public outcry; Black Lives Matter entered the fray.
Unpredictably, the District Attorney, after a lengthy – and presumed thorough – review of the case elected to press charges. Manslaughter. And two lesser charges.
The trial began recently; it ended with a ‘not guilty of anything’ verdict. I was conflicted in ways I didn’t know I could be. The TV news would present a portrait of Jeronimo Yanez and my heart would go to him. Manslaughter. Lock him up for some time? No … please … he’s a cop. He has a family. Just as suddenly I would think of Philando Castile, his girlfriend, the way he died. My heart went there.
No matter what else I might have thought of this, I for sure figured it was a tragedy of immense proportion.
A young black male died. He had a handgun, which he told the cop about, in his pants pocket. His girlfriend and her daughter were in the car and witnessed the shooting and dying. Among the things I wondered about: Will the girlfriend and daughter ever erase those images? If Philando was planning to harm Jeronimo with his gun, why did he tell him he had it? If the threat were so real and imminent, why did Jeronimo’s partner, observing from the opposite side of the car, jump back in such surprise when Jeronimo started shooting? Was this as reckless as it seemed? Should Jeronimo Yanez just walk away?
Let me be clear: when cops are in danger I don’t want them to be considering who will be second-guessing them or if they’re going to face charges. Their jobs are hard; I get that. Worrying about penalties when in danger makes both their job even harder and the danger worse. But still …
Here are my take-aways about this case: while Jeronimo believed he was in danger, that danger was not obvious to others ( specifically, those who saw the dash-cam video and his partner, who, I remind you, was looking into the car from the passenger side ); cops, by training, respond to danger by shooting the threat, the source of the danger; I don’t believe a white person in that car would have died as Philando Castile did. That is the ultimate tragedy here.
A column in the editorial section of our local newspaper spoke about “manning up” and accepting the jury’s verdict; it was the result of the justice system we have and we all should choose to live with it, whatever its tragic nature, for the sake of our society. A friend of mine, discussing the case, said essentially the same thing to me. And a case can be made for that view. However, I believe that, were “we” to have held that view when the society reacted against activists protesting segregation and ‘whites only’ facilities in the South, we would still have segregation and ‘whites only’ facilities in the South. I, for one, am very glad that has changed. Tragedies such as the Philando Castile killing do not have to occur and our society, I believe, must find a way to minimize them. “Not guilty of anything,” doesn’t even start to get us there.
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