Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey was the 2016 James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow and is the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press). Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
On Tuesday, a jury in Texas did what juries in the United States rarely do: convict a police officer for shooting and killing someone, in this case unarmed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, while on duty. Edwards was shot while riding in a car that was driving away from officers in Balch Springs, Texas, who were responding to a call about underage drinking at the time.
Hopefully this outcome will bring some comfort to Edwards’ parents and loved ones. This decision should also hearten good police officers everywhere, particularly if such accountability for former officer Roy Oliver can be the beginning of a long-overdue trend. Seeing justice done here should make their jobs easier and the neighborhoods they patrol safer.
It’s clearly the right verdict based on the evidence. The incident was sparked by a call to 911 about supposedly drunk high school students having a rowdy party (there was no alcohol found in the house) and escalated when gang members in a nearby parking lot fired shots into the air. Chaos ensued, with teenagers scattering into the streets. Oliver and his partner, Tyler Gross, tried to stop vehicles from leaving the party, including a Chevrolet Impala being driven by Edwards’s stepbrother. Gross yelled for it to stop and broke out a window before Oliver fired five rounds into the car, one of them hitting Edwards in the head.
At trial, Oliver claimed he was convinced Edwards was a threat because he saw Edwards’ silhouette moving in the car and shot into the Impala to defend his partner from the risk of being hit by the Impala. But Gross testified that he was not in danger. Race is always a factor in these cases, even when it’s not explicit, and especially when it involves unarmed black men. There’s no way of knowing what’s in a cop’s mind, but the repetitiveness of these events has made more young black men feel as though they are seen as threatening, no matter what they do.
In this case, two experts on police use of force procedures testified, one claiming the shooting was reasonable, the other saying it wasn’t. The jury sided with the prosecutor’s expert. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the jury’s assessment here. They did not simply believe the officer’s claim that he had to shoot during and should not be second-guessed for making life-or-death, split-second decisions, the rationale often used to successfully ward off even charges against cops in such cases. The jury sent a clear message that recklessly shooting into a moving vehicle is neither reasonable nor necessary – and that the lives of young men like Jordan Edwards matter, regardless of whether the person doing the shooting is wearing a badge and uniform.
If more officers are held to account in such circumstances, it will go a long in way in upending the perception many black men have: that it’s some police officers who are the real thugs because the system seems to protect them at all costs, making it seem as though they can get away with murder and still be deemed heroic. The list of injustices in such cases is long.
Former Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby was found not guilty in the shooting death of unarmed Terence Crutcher – and is now teaching police officers how to handle the aftermath of controversial shootings. Eric Garner was killed by police in New York, a grand jury failed to indict any of them and, only now, four years later, the NYPD is moving to hold an administrative proceeding which could result in internal discipline.
Former Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in which Castile was fully complying, and even told Castile he was legally carrying a gun. A jury found Yanez not guilty anyway. And though former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager eventually pleaded guilty and received a long prison sentence, a jury was unable to find him guilty even though he was caught on clear video shooting Walter Scott in the back as Scott was running away.
That distrust makes everyone less safe. It makes residents in black neighborhoods less likely to dial 911 when something awful happens, which sometimes convinces people to take matters into their own hands. That in turn fuels cycles of violence and retaliation that can overwhelm already-vulnerable communities and essentially trap innocent bystanders in their own homes. It then becomes harder for police officers to solve crimes, creating an air of lawlessness and helplessness.
I’ve seen and heard of such scenarios many times, including after my youngest brother’s fiancé was killed in a drive-by shooting, and in interviews with other young men I’ve met through two decades of reporting on these issues. The first instinct after that drive-by was for my brother’s friends to think of how to retaliate, not to talk to the police, because of that distrust.
The young men I have interviewed are more likely to pick up a gun to solve a dispute with a rival than a phone to dial 911 because they do not trust cops. Many of them have told me they don’t even bother reporting abuse at the hands of police officers because they don’t believe anything will come of their complaints. They are convinced cops are untouchable, no matter what they do.
The truth is prosecutors, judges, juries, police officers and their defenders have given them plenty of reason to believe that’s the case.
As Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University associate professor of criminal justice, told The Washington Post, even this case underscores how difficult it is to hold police officers accountable:
“For an officer to be convicted of murder resulting from an on-duty shooting, the facts of the incident have to be so bizarre that there is no rational explanation for the officer’s actions. I think that shooting into a car full of teenagers as they slowly drive down the street away from the officer fits that pattern.”
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Too often, when an officer does something awful, the system springs into action – not to ensure justice prevails, but to protect the officer from the consequences of his actions. That’s not good for any of us. A Texas jury just pushed the needle in the other direction. Let’s hope others follow their lead.