On Wednesday, the Charlotte District Attorney’s Office announced it will not file any charges against Brentley Vinson, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott, an African-American man, in the parking lot of Scott’s apartment complex in September.
At the press conference announcing the decision, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray highlighted several points he said contributed to this decision:
- A gun found at the scene had Scott’s DNA on the grip
- Convenience store surveillance footage of Scott from shortly before the shooting suggests he had a gun holstered on his ankle
- The officer who shot Scott was also black
- Scott’s family said he was sitting in his car reading, but police say they did not find a book
- Officers say Scott was told to drop his weapon 10 times before he was shot and he did not comply
- Officers say they saw Scott with marijuana
Predictably, this news was met with protests, and it’s not hard to see why protesters are angry that yet another police shooting has not resulted in criminal charges.
Though Scott’s killing is not as clear-cut as cases like the deaths of Minnesota’s Philando Castile, New York’s Eric Garner, or Baltimore’s Freddie Gray seem to be, there is one detail that sticks out to me as ample justification for bringing charges and proceeding to a public trial: DA Murray said Scott “could have raised his gun at any point” to shoot the police officers he encountered, but — and this is still coming from Murray — there is no evidence he ever did.
In fact, as a Scott family attorney, Justin Bamberg, noted, though “it’s safe to say [Scott] did have a gun on his person,” neither the police nor the DA seem to be saying he had it in his hand.
If that’s the case — and, to be fair, the videos of Scott’s death do not definitely answer this question, though neither do they ever show Scott with a gun in hand — it is difficult to see how this shooting could be justified.
Think about it: If the gun was in an ankle holster or perhaps in the car Scott had exited during the encounter, it is impossible to say he posed a deadly threat to the multiple police officers who surrounded him with their guns drawn.
Even in the ankle scenario, where the gun would have been more accessible than if it were in the vehicle, officers would have had more than enough time to react in the moments it would have taken him to bend over, lift his pant leg, extract the gun, stand back up, aim, and fire.
That Officer Vinson is black or that Scott may have had weed instead of a book has no impact on this key point.
While police brutality does disproportionately affect black Americans, there is no reason to believe black police officers are immune to the systemic problems of American policing. The argument about racial bias in our criminal justice system is not that every officer who engages in misconduct is personally racist. (In fact, one of the single worst examples of a police chief who fosters rampant disrespect for rule of law and individual rights within his department is Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee, who is himself African-American.)
As for the marijuana vs. book situation, it is certainly true that reading might have made Scott a more sympathetic victim than hotboxing. But is anyone seriously going to claim that smoking weed in one’s own vehicle is a violent crime worthy of death?
Justice should not depend of superficialities of public sympathy.
The inescapable conclusion here is that the bulk of the points DA Murray emphasized in his presser are little more than red herrings. The important point is that Scott apparently never held his gun in his hands or aimed it at any of the officers.
If that is the case — as it by all accounts seems to be — there is no way his killing was legally justified. That detail is enough to warrant manslaughter charges (like those handed down over Castile’s death) and a public trial to hold police accountable and produce the thorough investigation the protesters rightly demand.