In the wake of last week’s fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, some criminal justice experts are calling for the public to take caution in judging police shooting incidents by mobile phone video footage alone.
The videos, which partially capture both Sterling and Castile’s shootings, were widely shared on social media and reignited the ongoing national debate on deadly use of force by police officers.
Especially after five police officers in Dallas were killed by a sniper last Thursday, fears have begun to set in about the consequences of a public that makes snap judgments about the officers involved in police shootings.
“One of the things we’ve learned over the years is that video evidence is not positive. It doesn’t show us everything,” said David Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer and a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.
The videos of Sterling are “concerning,” Klinger said, but he urged restraint in instantly condemning officers in the “court of public opinion.”
In Sterling’s case, multiple videos taken of the incident show Sterling being tackled to the ground and held down by two police officers. One of the officers can be heard saying, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” and an officer is seen drawing his weapon and aiming at Sterling’s chest.
“We don’t know if Mr. Sterling was reaching for that gun, we don’t know how the officer knew that there was a gun, if it was in a pocket, and so on and so forth. So there’s a lot of questions that we don’t have answered yet,” Klinger said.
In the Philando Castile case, the mobile phone video broadcast through Facebook Live by Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, begins after Castile was shot. In it, Reynolds describes how the officer allegedly shot Castile after instructing him to produce his licence and registration.
“The question is, in this case, what went on before the video started to roll?” Klinger said.
The “court of public opinion” cuts both ways however, according to Jody Armour, a law professor who specialises in racial justice at the University of Southern California,
“In a lot of these cases the victims are really put on trial. They are tried in the court of public opinion, and unless those victims are choir boys, immaculate squeaky clean victims, then we start to blame them,” Armour said.
Armour said Castile’s lack of a criminal record and licensed firearm may endear him to the public more than previous victims of police shootings.
That perception is unfair, according to Armour, — it implies that Castile was more of a victim than Sterling, who had first been reported to police by an anonymous caller who said he was selling homemade CDs and threatening someone with a gun.
“So often people aren’t willing to feel the pain of the victim in a negative way.”
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