Dallas County just became one of few in the nation to convict and sentence a police officer for murder after an on-duty shooting. This execution of justice should become the rule rather than the exception.
On April 29, 2017, former Balch Springs officer Roy Oliver shot into a car full of unarmed teens driving away from a private party, fatally injuring 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. In the aftermath of the shooting, Balch Springs Police Chief Jonathan Haber said the car Edwards was in was driving toward Oliver, who shot in self-defense. Oliver was fired after body cam footage proved that the car was driving away from him and his partner. That’s where the problem lies.
All too often, law enforcement controls the narrative after the shooting of an unarmed civilian, especially when that civilian happens to be a black male. Take the case of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. Or even the case of Freddie Gray, who suffered a neck injury while in police custody. In each case, the families of the victims spoke out, but ultimately police held control of the narrative until proven wrong by civilian video footage. So why are officers so quick to grab ahold of the narrative, and why are we so quick to believe it?
According to Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, police officers enjoy the benefit of the doubt. In fact, according to a Bowling Green State University study, only 80 officers were arrested on murder or manslaughter charges for on-duty shootings between 2005 and 2017. Of those arrested, 28 were convicted. Our willingness to believe officers over their victims has tangible effects. Rather than setting an example, we’re showing officers that reckless use of force will most likely result in inaction on our part. Until we as civilians realize that we play an active role in these repeated miscarriages of justice, instances such as these will continue to occur.
According to a 2009 study in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, television portrayals of blacks cause white Americans to see the race, especially black males, as violent and aggressive. With these implicit biases, it’s not hard to see why police narratives are so easily believed. While police officers shouldn’t be afraid to defend themselves, black citizens shouldn’t have to live in constant fear of law enforcement. It shouldn’t be on them to ensure that every police encounter is recorded just in case they don’t survive it.
The only way to change this is by shifting the burden of proof to the officers. With increased surveillance methods such as body and dashboard cameras, there shouldn’t be any confusion as to what happens during a police stop. Additionally, it’s on us to hold officers accountable, which means we can’t forget about a shooting a week after it became national news. The court of public opinion does hold power, and by staying focused on officer-involved shootings, we can make sure that justice is served and cases aren’t dismissed or end in mistrials.
We have to become active citizens. If there’s a protest nearby, go. Read up on your city council members before elections, and most importantly, humanize victims of police violence. They’re more than a mugshot, headline or statistic. They’re a grieving family, a reeling community and a silently terrified minority population. By staying active and speaking out, we can make sure that Jordan Edwards’ death wasn’t in vain.