I’ve been covering police misconduct and related criminal justice issues for a little more than seven years. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to some writers’ contributions, of course, but it’s long enough to know how these things go—long enough to find last week’s verdict in the Philando Castile case more disheartening than surprising.
The case began a little less than a year ago, when Castile was killed by a police officer named Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop initiated over a broken taillight. Also in the car at the time were Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter. Reynold’s quick-thinking decision to livestream Castile’s final moments catapulted his death into national headlines.
I followed the story out of political interest, but also because, for me, it’s local news: Castile was killed just a few miles from my house in the Twin Cities. His uncle lives in my neighborhood. I go running near the elementary school where he was a beloved cafeteria manager. The son of an acquaintance is a student there, and Castile took the boy under his wing to help him get comfortable in a new environment. When protests swelled through the streets of St. Paul after the shooting, I joined in one and could hear the chants of others from my home.
As much as I know how these things go, the unique features of Castile’s case enticed me to hope it might go differently. “Ok, surely this is the one that convinces people,” I remember thinking in the shooting’s aftermath. “This is the one that makes it impossible to ignore how our criminal justice system so desperately needs reform. This one will go to trial and produce a conviction—because how could any judge or juror who sees what I’m seeing not recognize the injustice here?”
There was the video, and then there was Castile himself. As Reynolds said while pleading for her boyfriend’s life, Philando Castile was by all accounts “a good man.”
It goes without saying a victim of police violence shouldn’t have to be admirable and sympathetic for justice to be served, but the sad truth is in our courts of law and public opinion alike, any blemishes in a victim’s character or personal history are touted as implicit evidence the officer made the right call. (Remarkably, this even happens regarding details the cops have no way of knowing during the incident in question.)
But Castile seemed nigh unimpeachable. He had no criminal record. He was adored at his job by children, parents, and teachers alike. He never exhibited any violent behavior toward Yanez, and their entire interaction was sparked by a basic lapse in car maintenance of which any of us might be guilty. He was carrying a gun during the traffic stop, but he was a concealed-carry permit-holder, which means he was in “one of the most law-abiding demographics in America.” He respectfully informed Yanez he had the gun and complied, as much as possible, with Yanez’s conflicting orders.
Philando Castile did everything right. And yet, he is still dead, executed roadside by a police officer who panicked, and then failed by a justice system that doesn’t hold cops accountable for a demonstrably systemic pattern of gross misconduct.
Yanez was acquitted of all charges, deemed “not guilty” of manslaughter in the second degree and reckless discharge of a firearm. I specify those charges because when one of the jurors spoke out after the case, he suggested the verdict was the only possible conclusion given the “way the law is written.” That made me wonder if he was right, if the jury’s hand was forced by legislation poorly developed or applied.
So I tracked down the relevant Minnesota laws and the instructions the jury received before beginning their deliberations, and there’s just no escaping it: This wasn’t about the “way the law was written;” it was about who was subject to the charges.
Yanez was freed, as Daniel Payne writes at The Federalist, because Americans “have a queer aversion to convicting police officers when they quite obviously break the law,” a “deeply dysfunctional and unhealthy attitude about what constitutes acceptable police behavior,” and a “profoundly stupid and misguided deferential attitude toward law enforcement.”
I have plenty of ideas for criminal justice reform, some fairly common (e.g. body cameras) and some less so (e.g. making police pay their own settlements in civil cases). I sincerely believe these reforms can make police brutality less common, but absent a real change to our cultural approach to policing, our justice system will be marred by a dangerous weak link.
I don’t know how to make that change happen, but I do know the longer it takes, the more deaths like Philando Castile’s there will be.