Why do police officers keep killing Black people and getting away with it?

Posted May 31, 2017 by Saryn Francis

“Let it be known that I believe in my heart that Betty Shelby got away with murder,” said Joseph Crutcher late on May 17th, after the police officer that fatally shot his son was found not guilty of manslaughter. Joseph Crutcher’s words are reminiscent of the sentiments of the hundreds of families that have lost loved ones at the hands of the police.

On September 16th, 40 year old Terence Crutcher was on his way home from class at Tulsa Community College when police responded to a call claiming Crutcher’s car was stalled in the middle of the road. Videos from the scene show police following Crutcher to his car with his hands up. Although not visible in the video, police report that Crutcher reached in his car, which led Shelby to fire her weapon. It is unclear whether Crutcher actually reached through the window or put his hands on the roof of his car. No weapon was found in the vehicle. Crutcher later died of a bullet to the chest.

Black people are more likely to be killed by police.

As we know, this tragic event is anything but new. Data collected by the Guardian shows that Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be killed by police as white folks.  In 2016 alone, Black folks were killed at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, while for white folks it was 2.9 per 1 million.

White fear against black bodies is a justifiable cause in court.

Days after the murder, Shelby was charged with first degree manslaughter. Seven months later, on May 18th, she was acquitted by a jury of her peers, who after nine hours of deliberation found her “not guilty.” During trial, Shelby claimed that she had “never been so scared in her life.”  This statement shows that white women are capable, and more than willing, just as their male counterparts, to use white fear of black bodies as a justifiable cause for murder – and it holds up in court.

A court case set the foundation for justifying deadly force.

The 1989 Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Connor set the framework for determining when deadly force is permissible by police. This case was a civil lawsuit brought forth by a man who survived a violent encounter with the police while having a diabetic attack. The Supreme Court ruled that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat to the police officer’s life when force is used, but rather if the police officer has an ‘objectively reasonable’ belief that there is a threat. This means that when an officer kills an unarmed black man, it doesn’t matter if there isn’t an actual threat to the officer’s life, but rather if the police officer perceives the man as a threat. At its core, this ruling gives law enforcement a license to kill innocent, armed people based on their biased perception of threat.

This is what you can do.

Terence Crutcher’s murder and the acquitting of Betty Shelby is a grave miscarriage of justice. As our communities heal from this tragic incident, it is our duty and responsibility to continue to fight for our collective liberation.  This means that we must first synthesize the systems in place that lead to injustice, and then actively fight to change them. Propose institutional changes in your local police that will not only end implicit bias, but will change the system. First, figure out what systems or policies perpetuate white fear of black bodies, and then actively work to change them. Does your city police participate in anti-bias trainings? How does your police department protect police officers that act on racial bias?  Ask these questions in your community, and demand that your voice be heard.

If you would like support to address this issue in your community, please reach out to us at YP4Alumni@pfaw.org