Less than four years later, former Minneapolis policeman Mohamed Noor is in jail after a jury convicted him of murder for shooting and killing Justine Damond, former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin is on trial for murder for the death of George Floyd, and Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter was charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing Daunte Wright while Chauvin’s trial was ongoing.
Have we entered a new era, in which the police are criminally charged when they kill people in questionable – or worse – circumstances? Has the old story of administrative leave and possibly internal discipline or dismissal – but nothing more – been put aside?
Some long-time participants and observers of the criminal justice system say yes, that standards, both in the public and in the law enforcement community, have changed, and the decades-long reluctance to lay charges against individuals. police officers on duty dealing with suspects is rightly so. more than.
But others say no, that the numbers don’t really show clear trends and that officers are only held accountable in criminal courts in the most egregious cases.
And then, of course, there is the question of race – the race of officers and those who are killed – and how that takes into account both reality and perceptions.
Everyone agrees that one thing is definitely different from ten years ago: video. It’s everywhere, from high-definition surveillance cameras to multi-angle images from spectators’ smartphones, to dashboard cameras that record when a boat’s lights are on, to body cameras that provide an angle so close up that often the view is obscured. in a brawl – but which also provide crucial sound.
‘The terrain has changed’
In Minnesota, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi crossed the barrier when he decided to charge Yanez with second degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharging from a gun. fire.
During his trial, Yanez asserted his self-defense, saying he believed Castile, whom he had arrested for a traffic violation in Falcon Heights, was looking for a gun. Castile legally had a handgun – and had just informed Yanez – but it appears to have remained in his pocket. His last words were: “I was not reaching it.”
A jury has found Yanez not guilty, but Choi stands by his decision.
“In the end, it was the right thing to do,” Choi said in an interview last week. “We couldn’t do justice at the trial, but I have to respect the jury’s decision.”
Choi, who took office in 2006, almost two years after 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr., who was black, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. , it sparked widespread protests and gave momentum to the growing Black Lives Matter movement which Choi says has influenced where we stand today.
“I think in a lot of ways in this country since Ferguson the terrain has changed,” Choi said. “It affected our foundation, everything we do as prosecutors and what the police do – everyone who is supposed to apply the law. The terrain can only change when the public is more educated and engaged, and I think Ferguson has caused many prosecutors across America to really question the role of the prosecutor.
Choi pointed out that it was not just pressure from the black community, but also from white residents.
“I have had so many conversations with people from all over,” he said. “They don’t like it at all. And they demand accountability. He’s grown to the point where there’s a compensating side, and hard lines are drawn. It shows how much that has changed.
When Floyd was killed in May, Choi said he had no doubts that Chauvin would be charged. He said the change in attitude was the backdrop, but the video footage sealed it.
“The quality of the evidence presented to the prosecutor has been significantly improved,” he said. “Come back just before all that, there’s no video at all.” The best thing you had was the police version typed into a report, with the possible exception of other police witnesses.
Noor condemnation asterisk
The next barrier to cross was the conviction of Noor, who shot Damond from inside his group car in 2017. Damond, who was unarmed, had called 911 to report a potential attack in progress.
Like Yanez, Noor claimed self-defense, which Damond rushed to the team car and surprised him, but the jury convicted him. He is currently serving a sentence of 12 and a half years.
For civil rights activists, Noor’s conviction did little to address their biggest concern: police violence against black men. Damond was a blonde and white woman – and Noor, who immigrated from Somalia, is black.
“Think about it: we only had one officer convicted in the state of Minnesota, and it was a black and Muslim officer for the murder of a wealthy white woman,” said lawyer Nekima Levy Armstrong of civil rights and former president of the NAACP in Minneapolis. “We have not yet had a conviction in the Derek Chauvin trial.”
Levy Armstrong says things are changing, but she won’t admit that the police are regularly and fully held to account.
“We are at a time when more and more people are becoming aware of the systemic problems of the police, and it is because there is a movement, but the system has not been overhauled,” he said. she declared.
One thing is clear: In the short history of criminally accused Minnesota cops, the numbers are rising.
In March 2020, Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Krook was acquitted by a second degree manslaughter jury after shooting and killing an unarmed suicidal man, Benjamin Evans, in Lake Elmo. Both men were white. It was the first such charges against a Washington County officer.
St. Louis County prosecutors also charged an officer with a wrongful shooting for the first time. In September, Duluth policeman Tyler Leibfried shot and wounded Jared Fyle, who was unarmed, through a closed door as he responded to a domestic disturbance call. Leibfried is preparing to stand trial on charges of intentionally discharging a firearm that endangers safety and recklessly discharging a firearm in a municipality. Both men are white.
One closely watched case is that of St. Paul Constable Tony Dean, who in November shot and injured Joseph Washington, a naked and unarmed black man, after Washington emerged from hiding in a dumpster. garbage. Police were looking for him based on reports that he sexually assaulted a woman earlier in the evening with a knife. Dean’s attorney said Washington claimed to have a gun before getting out of the dumpster. The Minnesota attorney general’s office is reviewing the case for possible charges.
Charges still rare
Statistically, these numbers are too small to determine true trends, and nationally, the picture is not conclusive either.
Between 2005 and 2021, 140 law enforcement officers were arrested for murder or manslaughter in America, according to a tally by Philip Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and Washington Post.
The numbers have increased: from 2005 to 2010, 32 officers were charged; from 2015 to 2020, that number was 77.
However, Stinson said the total numbers were too small to be statistically significant.
“Yes, we see a few more cases each year, but the increases are statistically insignificant,” Stinson said, noting he was surprised because the public conversation has changed so dramatically. “I would have speculated in early 2015 that we would have a huge spike, but that’s just not happening.”
“We are all paying more attention,” he said. “And it really looks a lot like the Twin Cities area right now, but we’ve seen elsewhere in the country, clusters of similar charges.”
Ben Crump, the attorney representing the Floyd and Wright families, recently gathered in front of media cameras with a line of relatives of black men and women killed by police in incidents that have attracted national attention – but did not bring criminal charges against officers.
“The reason we are able to get due process so quickly in the state of Minnesota for the murder of Daunte Wright is because of the blood of their children,” said Crump. “It was the blood of their children that brought us to this point now in America.”