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All the Police Have to Do Is Utter Those Five Magic Words

CounterSpin interviews Ronnie Dunn on the Philando Castile verdict.

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Janine Jackson: If there is a word for being stunned and stunned again, and yet unable to become numb, it would go some way towards describing how people — especially black people — felt as we heard the verdict in the case of the murder of Philando Castile. That a jury determined no crime was committed when Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez pumped seven bullets at Castile and into the back seat of the car where his girlfriend and her four-year-old child were sitting. That this was the system working.

If these outcomes are to be more than a punch in the gut, we have to try and learn what they teach us about the limits of the law in achieving justice. The ultimate response to state violence against black people is building community power. But, with that, can the law — supposedly a living thing — be changed? What other points of intervention exist, and how do we measure progress?

Our next guest has been working on these issues for many years now. Ronnie Dunn is professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University in Ohio. He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ronnie Dunn.

Ronnie Dunn: Thank you for having me.

There’s always room, it seems, for more surprise, but verdicts like the one we’ve just seen in the case of Philando Castile don’t come from nowhere; they have something to do with the rules that jurors are given in such cases. Can you tell us about the Supreme Court rulings around “reasonableness,” and the role they play in delivering outcomes like this?

Well, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor that the standard used in such cases is the “reasonable officer standard,” and that being, would another officer, placed in the same set of circumstances and situation, respond accordingly with the use of deadly force? Then we have Tennessee v. Garner, which dealt with the “defense of life” standard. It shifted from the “fleeing felon” standard, wherein police could shoot at a felon as they fled, to that of defense of life, of either the officer or other citizens in the area.

It seems to say — and I know I’m putting it a bit crudely — but if an officer’s fear for their life can be used to justify a killing, and we have research showing that many police officers fear black people just because they’re black — well, heck, that sounds like a tight little circle of rationalized racism.

Well, absolutely, I agree. Actually, all the police have to do is utter those five magic words — “I feared for my life” — and most likely they’re going to be acquitted. And as we’ve seen over these past several cases now — Philando Castile, Sylville Smith, Walter Scott, Terence Crutcher — the juries, once again, they’re inclined to take the officer at their word, in spite of video evidence that would contradict much of what the officers are stating.

And in the Philando Castile case, we see that since the officer was acquitted, they’ve now released a dashcam video, that in my view shows that the shooting was that much more egregious. And one’s left to question, why did they not release that video footage prior to the trial, versus after the ruling? So it’s very disturbing. Really, it makes one wonder whether or not the current criminal justice system, and our courts as currently constituted, actually have the capacity to deliver justice to people of color, particularly blacks, in these type of cases.

Is there anything that prevents state or local law enforcement from setting standards different than those that seem to have been established by the Supreme Court?

No, they can establish stricter standards. Now, naturally, defense would try to challenge those, challenge the constitutionality of those, but they can. And actually, I’ve just been kind of brainstorming and thinking about these issues, and trying to think of some means that would provide a greater level of equity and justice.

And my mind keeps turning to the military, for example. I’m a veteran. And the military is held to the standards of the uniform code of military justice. So my thought is, in that the police are a paramilitary institution, that we might need to — and this is totally thinking out of the box — move to some type of judicial system or tribunal in regards to police-involved shootings, these controversial police-involved shootings. These cases are tried in a separate court, for example. Currently, many jurisdictions have drug courts, they have special dockets for veterans and other things of that nature. So I’m just trying to think of how we might be able to move to a system that can provide a greater degree of accountability and justice.

There are a couple of things that I think can be done to begin to potentially address this issue, and that is the implementation of more implicit-bias screening and training of police officers, to try to get at this irrational fear of black people that they seem to all universally have. So I would suggest that there needs to be an emphasis on implicit-bias training, both at the screening process and through continual in-service training of officers.

A colleague of mine at Cleveland State conducted research that showed that departments that have a policy that requires the reporting of every instance, every time an officer draws their weapon and aims it, that they have to file a report. That policy has been shown to have an impact on diminishing police-involved shootings.

So those are two strategies that I think have the potential to help to address these issues to some degree. But there’s much more research that needs to be done in this area. And other than that, the legislature will need to strengthen our laws to help to address that. And then, once again, it’s incumbent that we have to do something within the courts to try to offset this bias that is automatically given to law enforcement.

What’s clear is that something has to change. And I just want to ask you, finally, thoughts you have about the role of journalism here. I mean, I am tired of coverage that claims that the whole country is going through a “painful reckoning,” when the pain seems, in fact, very localized, and I don’t know what kind of reckoning it is that goes on for hundreds of years and doesn’t get reckoned. Or where things are framed in terms of “community/police relations,” when we’re really talking about ending police violence.

There are certainly things that media could do less of, I think. What would you like to see journalists do more of? Are there kinds of stories you think are missing, that might push this rock down the road?

Well, I think it’s imperative that journalists continue to do the type of investigative journalism that we saw The Washington Post undertake, and the crowdsourcing of these police killings to develop these databases and fill in some of those gaps — that the federal government, in this instance, were not providing relevant data, so we would even know the magnitude of this problem. As we see with social media, it has brought this issue out of the dark and shone light on it nationally. Where these type of incidents and shootings have been taking place for God knows how long, it’s only with the advent of cellphone cameras and social media that it has now come to light, and been placed on the national and public agenda.

Media has a vital role to play in that, journalists [should] continue to shine light on that, and just keep it out there in the forefront, particularly in this current political environment that we’re in, with the changes in Washington, and the return to the war on drugs regime, and the aggressive policing that we saw over the past 30 to 40 years.

We’ve been speaking with Ronnie Dunn, professor of urban studies at Ohio’s Cleveland State University. Ronnie Dunn, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

Thank you. My pleasure.

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