The words cut deep in the black community. On Friday, Officer Jeronimo Yanez, a policeman in St. Anthony, Minnesota, was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Philando Castile.
Castile was an average Joe. He worked as a cafeteria supervisor at a magnet school in St. Paul, beloved by students and parents alike. Like many law-abiding citizens, he had a concealed-carry permit and carried a handgun for his own protection. Although he’d been stopped routinely by police in the past, he had no significant criminal record.
On July 6, 2016, Castile, along with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter, was stopped for a broken taillight violation by Officer Yanez. Yanez approached Castile’s vehicle on the driver’s side. Within less than a minute, backup arrived. Officer Joseph Kauser approached on the passenger side.
As is routine, Yanez asked for Castile’s driver’s license and proof of insurance. After searching for about ten seconds, Castile produced his proof of insurance card. A few seconds later, Castile notified Yanez that he was armed, as he was legally required to do as a concealed carry holder.
Yanez placed his hand on his sidearm and then responded: “Okay, don’t reach for it then.”
What happened next occurred within seconds. It is unclear exactly what Castile said next, but he appeared to indicate that he was just reaching for his driver’s license as ordered. It is undisputed that Castile never reached for his firearm. Nevertheless, Yanez interrupted Castile, saying: “Don’t pull it out.” His girlfriend even told the officer: “He’s not pulling it out.”
Yanez then screamed: “DON’T PULL IT OUT!” He simultaneously drew his weapon and fired seven shots at Castile, striking him fatally in the gut. The young child in the back seat observed the events, presumably traumatized.
Castile then uttered his last words. “I wasn’t reaching for it.” He died soon after.
Yanez had no real defense except the tendency of juries to defer to police when they claim to feel subjectively threatened, even if that supposed threat has very little basis. The basic claim made by Yanez is that even though he had specifically requested that Castile reach for his driver’s license, the moment Castile announced that he was armed he’d signed his own death warrant if he made any movement whatsoever.
The fact that Castile notified Yanez that he was armed should have put Officer Yanez at ease. Were Castile planning to pull a gun, he presumably wouldn’t have announced it. Moreover, he was stopped for a broken taillight; there was no indication he was a dangerous criminal.
Moreover, Castile was simply following Yanez’s order. He was supposed to pull out his license. How could he do so without reaching for his wallet?
Castile’s killing occurred in Minnesota, of course, and not in New Orleans. However, it has resonance here. If police can blow a citizen away in a panicked fashion without repercussions, we’re all in danger. There should be consequences for this type of misconduct.
After all, has anyone forgotten how NOPD Officer David Warren shot Henry Glover with a .223 rifle outside an Algiers strip mall during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Warren never gave any reasonable explanation for why he was so threatened by a citizen (who was approaching at a distance) that he felt the need to fire without warning. Warren was tried and convicted, but that conviction was overturned because he was improperly tried simultaneously with an officer who covered up what he’d done. On retrial, facing a more favorable jury pool, he walked.
In cases where no suspect actually dies, there’s normally no discipline at all. In 2013, plainclothes Louisiana State Troopers ran up on two young men suspected of violating curfew and slammed one into the pavement and the other against a wall. The State Police backed the Troopers, despite a video that clearly showed no justification for the immediate use of physical force.
These types of incidents have become all too routine. Most of the time, they don’t even make the news.
The most frightening aspect of the Castile shooting for me is that it could happen anywhere and to anyone. Although young black males are at the highest risk, police misconduct can and does happen to persons of all ages and all races.
For many, the Castile shooting is a vindication of “Black Lives Matter.” However, it should be read as an example of why “Police Accountability Matters.” Castile had a concealed carry permit. He announced that he was carrying. He was still shot without justification. This should be a major concern for gun rights advocates and civil liberties activists alike.
New Orleans has a problem with crime, and part of that problem originates with a breakdown in trust between police and citizens. The Castile shooting has highlighted that divide. We can do better; we can achieve true accountability.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.