Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The lessons of Charlotte and Tulsa: There is no one "truth"

Police officials in Charlotte, N.C. have refused to publicly release video of this week's controversial shooting of Keith Scott. Without knowing what is on the video, let me hazard a guess: If the video clearly exonerated  the police or strongly supported their official narrative, it would have been released in hopes of calming tensions. Unfortunately, based on accounts from law enforcement as well as from representatives of the Scott family, it does not provide many clear answers.

There are problems in the case beyond the video. Police officials have said that they came to Scott's apartment complex to carry out an arrest warrant against another individual, a person to whom Scott had no known ties. When officers saw Scott enter a nearby vehicle with a handgun, they confronted him and ordered him out out of the car. What happened next is still in dispute.

But North Carolina, like Georgia, is an "open carry" state.  It is perfectly legal to carry a firearm on your person, and police have no authority or reason to confront you or question you for doing so. You can argue the wisdom of such laws, but that's the situation that state legislators have chosen to create. In Georgia, thanks to gun activists, state law specifically forbids law enforcement officers from asking someone with a weapon whether they have a permit to do so.

Yet by the police department's own description, they confronted Scott because he was carrying a firearm. Was Scott brandishing the weapon in some threatening fashion? We don't know. But there's a real question about whether that alleged Second Amendment right to carry a gun in public extends to black Americans as well as white, and whether the National Rifle Association even cares.

What we do know is this:

  • Here in Atlanta in June, Police Officer James Burns shot and killed Devaris Rogers, claiming that Rogers had attempted to run him down with a car. Video proved that story to be a hoax, that Rogers posed no threat to Burns when he was shot in the head. As a result, Burns now faces felony murder charges. Given the record of such cases in Georgia, it is highly unlikely that charges would have been filed without the existence of video.
  • In Minnesota earlier this year, Philando Castile, 32, was pulled over by police on a traffic stop, one of 52 documented times in which he had been pulled over by police. He had his girlfriend and a child riding in the car with him. When officers approached, Castile told them that he was licensed to carry a firearm and had a weapon with him, which is precisely the procedure that a responsible gun owner cooperating with officers should follow in such circumstances. Yet when Castile reached in his back pocket for license and registration, he was shot four times.  No video of the actual shooting has surfaced, and the case is still under investigation.
  • In Chicago in 2014, official police reports justified the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times by saying that McDonald had lunged at an officer with a knife, forcing him to defend himself. Yet during the subsequent investigation, more than 80 minutes of surveillance video of the incident taken from a nearby Burger King mysteriously disappeared after it was accessed by police officers. Police audio also mysteriously disappeared, and a later investigation found that police audio equipment had been intentionally damaged. For more than a year, police officials fought release of dashcam video. Only after they lost that fight in court, only after it was clear that the video proved officers had been lying, was the officer arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He became the first Chicago officer charged in a shooting in 35 years.
  • In North Charleston, S.C. in 2015, Walter Scott was shot down from behind by Officer Michael Slager, who then retrieved and planted a Taser near Scott's dead body, apparently to bolster a claim that he had been shot in midst of a struggle. Without a civilian video of the shooting and planting of evidence, it's uncertain and probably unlikely that Slager would today be facing murder charges.
  • In Tulsa, Officer Betty Shelby was arrested and charged with felony manslaughter this week in the shooting of Terence Crutcher. Extensive video documenting the killing was so troubling that even Donald Trump was taken aback by it. Again, without that video, I doubt charges would have been filed.
  • In Cleveland, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, playing in a city park with a play gun in 2014, was shot down and killed by officers almost immediately upon arriving at the scene, an event extremely unlikely in the case of a white kid in a suburban park. Despite video demonstrating that young Tamir was never given a chance to drop his toy weapon before officers opened fire on him,  no indictments were returned.

None of the above cases tell us anything about what happened in Charlotte, but they have absolutely had an impact on the public response. For decades, black leaders have complained about unjustified killings and police abuse and had complained that law enforcement always managed to evade responsibility for its excesses. For decades, few outside the black community gave those complaints any credence. Only now, with the ubiquity of video, has the evidence emerged that on too many occasions, their complaints have been tragically valid.

It is also worth noting that under a law due to take effect Oct. 1 in North Carolina, police video can no longer be released to the public unless ordered by a judge. Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the law, claims that it is necessary to protect the constitutional rights of police officers, but it is hard to understand how those rights can be threatened by release of video documenting their performance of public duties.

Six other important points:

  • Police officers have a dangerous job and are sometimes forced to make quick decisions under significant duress, and most officers take their responsibility seriously. In many cases -- in a significant majority of cases -- video evidence of shootings has actually substantiated police actions.
  • Across the country, and particularly here in Georgia, police pay is grossly inadequate. If we want to recruit officers from among the best and brightest, if we want good, well-trained officers to make law enforcement a career, then we ought to pay them as if we appreciate their work. We do not come close to doing so. Gov. Nathan Deal's recent announcement of significant pay hikes for state law enforcement is good news, but it does nothing to address the problem at the local level, where most law enforcement happens.
  • Even in unjustified shootings, officers typically act out of bad judgment or fear rather than malice. In the Tulsa case, for example, prosecutors have been criticized by some for not charging the officer with murder. Given the circumstances, though, the lesser charge of manslaughter is probably appropriate.
  • The culture of coverup and self-protection that has long existed within much of law enforcement was always wrong, but with today's technology it is also no longer sustainable.  Public demand for credible civilian oversight and for law enforcement professionals willing to demand accountability within their own ranks is only going to increase.
  • Prodded by deep cultural memories of shootings and coverups, sometimes local communities have overreacted to police shootings that later prove justified. And as we've seen in Charlotte, peaceful demonstrations are sometimes hijacked by a relative few seeking an excuse for violence, destruction and theft, and innocent lives have been endangered as a result. But in Tulsa, where officials quickly released available video and acted appropriately to what the video contained, no such violence has occurred.
  • Some in the law-enforcement community have contributed to the emotionally wrought atmosphere by exaggerating the threat against them. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks police deaths in the line of duty, "Firearms-related fatalities peaked in 1973, when 156 officers were shot and killed. Since then, the average number of officers killed has decreased from 127 per year in the 1970s to 57 per year in the 2000s. The 42 firearms-related fatalities in 2015 are 26 percent lower than the average of 57 per year for the decade spanning 2000-2009.”


Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.