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What Philando Castile verdict says about path of police reform

For the families who have lost loved ones, it may seem that little has changed in how and when officers exercise lethal force, particularly against African-American men. And increasingly, many experts are concluding that the courts may be ill-equipped to lead the debate in how and whether policy reform is needed.

“My son loved this city, and this city killed my son and let the murderer get away with it,” a tearful Valerie Castile said last week, shortly after a jury acquitted St. Anthony, Minn., police officer Jeronimo Yanez of all charges relating to his fatal shooting of her son, Philando. Mr. Yanez was fired by the department because of the shooting.

“Let it be known that I believe in my heart that Betty Shelby got away with murder,” said Joseph Crutcher last month, shortly after a jury acquitted Officer Shelby, of the Tulsa, Okla., police department, of all charges relating to her fatal shooting of his son, Terence.

The Crutcher and Castile families now appear to be following in the footsteps of other grieving families at the heart of the country’s national debate over police use of force. Police officers are rarely convicted criminally. Only one officer involved in a controversial post-Ferguson police shooting has been convicted: Michael Slager, who fatally shot Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., in April 2015. Families have had much more success with civil rights lawsuits, with many have settled with municipalities for millions of dollars.

But while such settlements may bring a measure of acknowledgment for grieving families, they may not directly change the underlying police behavior.

This may be somewhat ironic, since deterrence “is one of the underlying principles of criminal law,” says Kami Chavis-Simmons, a former assistant United States attorney.

Convicting police officers is challenging, since the law gives them broad latitude in justifying their use of lethal force. And even large civil settlements have little…

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