Opinion

Opinion

Millions for families of police shooting victims won't fix the problem

Posted June 28

Following the high-profile deaths of five black men and boys at the hands of police, cities have now paid out close to $23 million to their families. I can't imagine that money brings much comfort for their losses. Just ten days after St. Anthony, Minnesota, Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty on charges related to the shooting death of motorist Philando Castile, Castile's family agreed to a $3 million settlement with the city of St. Anthony. Public statements surrounding the settlement suggest that it was reached in an effort to help the City of St. Anthony heal and move forward.

And yes, much healing is in order -- not only in St. Anthony, but also around the country -- especially after so many have watched the footage of the traffic stop that led to Castile's death. Video released for the world to see shows Yanez looking panicked, frantic, and out of control only seconds after the encounter. Philando Castile apparently thought telling Yanez he was armed would put the officer at ease, but it cost him his life.

To be sure, police have a right to go home to their families at the end of a long day spent focusing on the safety and protection of us all. But black males also have the right not to be subject to the death penalty during what should be routine police encounters. A focus on de-escalation and alternatives to lethal force should be the rule -- not the exception.

Ultimately, it mattered little that Castile was compliant, calm and respectful during the encounter. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who sat in the passenger seat, was equally so -- even in the aftermath of seeing her boyfriend shot multiple times as she streamed the video via Facebook live. Even more composed, was her 4-year-old daughter in the backseat, who reassured her mother that everything would be okay. Case over, not guilty.

The Castile family's settlement comes only days after the family of Michael Brown received $1.5 million to resolve claims against the City of Ferguson, Missouri, as a result of his shooting death in August 2014 at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. Another day, another settlement. And yet another statement about public healing and time to move on. But moving on isn't so simple.

Communities across America continue to be outraged by the lack of criminal accountability for officers behaving badly, and black males dying at their hands. In South Carolina, Officer Michael Slager actually shot Walter Scott in the back as he was running away on April 4, 2015, following a car stop. Even that wasn't enough for the jury to convict -- proceedings ended in a mistrial as they couldn't reach consensus. What? Thank goodness for federal civil rights charges -- to which Slager ultimately pleaded guilty. The Scott family, like the Castiles and the Browns, also received a settlement -- of $6.5 million. But did Walter Scott need to die?

In New York, on July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo after being approached for selling loose cigarettes. While being choked, he repeatedly stated that he could not breathe. The result? No indictment -- and a federal investigation that is supposedly still ongoing. The Garner family received $5.9 million. But did Eric Garner have to die?

In Cleveland, on November 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot while playing with a toy gun in the park. Within seconds of the police arriving, he was shot and killed by Police Officer Timothy Loehmann. The result? No indictment. Case closed. The Rice family received $6 million. But did Tamir Rice have to die?

This list feels endless. Perhaps municipalities can write fewer checks and focus on sparing more black lives. That would certainly go a long way in the healing process. The healing should start with police departments' recruiting officers who should be wearing a badge and carrying a gun in the first place. It should continue with enhancing diversity and cultural awareness within police departments across the country, and doing a much better job at situational training -- to make it less likely that officers will react with the kind of panic clearly visible in Yanez.

But just how are these settlements reached in the aftermath of officers' being criminally exonerated? Just because they were not held criminally liable for the deaths of these men, the officers and the departments who employ them aren't immune to civil liability. So when these settlements are agreed upon, where do the numbers come from?

Criminal cases are judged by different standards of proof than are civil matters. In the criminal context, a jury must unanimously conclude that an officer is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." That's a fairly high standard, and one that jurors appear to get stuck on. And in instances where an officer is not even indicted by a grand jury, the prosecutor controls the flow of evidence and how it gets presented and framed. In many cases, motivated prosecutors will secure an indictment, while ones who don't necessarily believe in the case will not.

In civil court though, all that the family's lawyer needs to show is that "it was more likely than not" that the officer acted negligently or irresponsibly. That's called a "preponderance of the evidence" standard -- and is far easier to satisfy than the criminal one. And since it's only money, which the municipality or its insurers pays, jurors don't have to make weighty decisions which ultimately impact freedom and liberty of public servants. They only have to consider monetary compensation for the family's very obvious loss.

Putting a dollar amount on the loss of a family member, while it feels impossibly counterintuitive, depends upon a series of factors, including: the egregiousness of the police misconduct in any particular case; the likelihood that the municipality will not be able to justify the officer's conduct in civil court and just how distastefully the jury will view the officer's actions. The more sympathetic the facts, even in situations in which those facts did not result in a criminal conviction, the more zeros are attached to the settlement.

While it would be worthwhile to compare these settlement amounts to cases involving white men killed by the police in similar fashion, such a comparison isn't possible as white men are generally not shot as readily by police during street encounters.

It appears as though police are more afraid, and feel much more threatened and uneasy around black men. In fact, there is research that reflects this disparity in perception.

My dad, who served as a police officer, would always tell me that of all the weapons he ever carried, the most important weapon he had was his mouth. Talk to people, he said. Relate to people, respect people, and gain compliance from people. He was a realist, and admitted that it didn't always work. But he also said it was always worth the effort.

One generation later, I continue to advise my teenage son to be courteous and respectful during any police encounter. And most importantly, I tell him, do what you're told. Even if you have an issue with the way you're being treated, I tell him, comply now and grieve later. In the case of Philando Castile, that advice did little good. And therein lies the rub. I'd much rather have my son around than to collect a check. I'm pretty confident that we all would.

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