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Of an estimated 10,000 people who have been shot and killed by police since 2005, only 81 of those officers involved have been indicted on charges of murder or manslaughter.
So the swiftness at which the local police and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office arrested Roy Oliver, the officer who killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards last month, is notable.
While precedent suggests that Oliver won’t face a conviction of murder, let alone incarceration for his killing of the unarmed teen, Dallas County — the county seat of the Balch Springs suburb where Oliver fatally shot Jordan in the head — could offer a flicker of hope in a criminal justice system that feels more and more bleak for people of color with each passing year.
It should go without saying that the criminal justice system is stacked against people of color from the very first police encounter through their time on parole, if they live to see it. From January through August 2015, according to one analysis, Bflack men accounted for 40 percent of 60 unarmed deaths, even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. Further, Black men were seven times more likely than White men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.
The reverence for cops and their discretion, on the other hand, completely contrasts the realities of many Black and Brown people who are disproportionately trapped by America’s criminal justice laws and practices. Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, shared with ESSENCE that in the approximately 10,000 cases of officer-involved shootings since 2005, only 29 officers have actually been convicted. Of those, officers face an average of four years imprisonment, which includes house arrest. This is skewed, however, by cops who face extremely lengthy incarceration and those who face zero months of jail or prison time; the latter of which occurs most frequently, according to Stinson’s research.
A brief assessment of who makes up America’s cops, prosecutors, and judges offers a sobering reminder. As much as Americans may not want to admit it, the legal discrimination of Black people is fueled by the fact that few Black people are in positions of power to control these racially disparate outcomes. Police officers are disproportionately white and male, even in America’s most liberal cities. In New York City, for example, people of color make up almost 70 percent of the population, yet they comprise less than 50 percent of the police force. This is about a 20 percent disparity.
On average around the country, the disparity is nearly 25 percent.
Taking a look at the racial demographics of prosecutors is even more dire. White men make up 31 percent of the American population. They are 79 percent of the country’s prosecutors. With White women making up 16 percent of prosecutors, an astounding 95 percent of the country’s prosecutors — the most powerful people in the criminal justice system who determine whether or not an officer is indicted — are White. White men and women also occupy approximately 80 percent of the country’s judges at the state level.
Jasmine Crocket, the Edwards’ family attorney, however, shares with ESSENCE that there is hope they could attain justice. For one, forensic and video evidence makes a self-defense justification extremely challenging for the officer. As reports on the body camera footage have indicated, the car in which Jordan was a passenger when Oliver killed him was driving away from the officer and not “aggressively” backing up, as the Balch Springs police initially reported.
In cases where an officer does shoot a moving vehicle, police policy requires that the officer shoot the driver’s side. Instead, Oliver picked up a rifle and shot into the passenger’s side, hitting Jordan, whereas his colleague on the driver’s side held fire. Consequently, the standard for self-defense — whether a reasonable officer in the same circumstances would have feared for his life — may not hold for Oliver.
In addition, Crockett feels assured that the cop’s history could impact the case. Her legal team’s own investigations reveal the officer may have had a pattern of irresponsibly handling his firearm.
Further, Dallas County’s racial demographics may be beneficial. Ms. Crockett notes that the area likely has the highest percentage of African-American women in the country serving as judges. Dallas County is also diverse, with the Latino population consisting of about 39 percent of the county and non-Hispanic Whites and Blacks comprising 31 and 22 percent of the county’s population, respectively. In Ferguson, only 3 of 12 jurors serving on the grand jury in the killing of Mike Brown were Black despite making up 67 percent of Ferguson’s population. Here, Crockett has faith that both the grand jury and the jury at trial, if the case does lead to one, could also be diverse, as previous grand juries have been more in line with the county’s racial demographics.
Analyzing the outcome of a case on the basis of race may seem cynical, but study after study has shown that race is often the controlling factor in America’s disparate outcomes in how both victims and perpetrators are treated. It shouldn’t require the perfect mixture of race, egregious cop behavior, a young, unarmed, promising teen, and overwhelming video evidence for a cop to face conviction or prison time.
The legal standard is not “egregiousness” or “the victim’s promising future.” Yet in virtually every case — even in the most extreme incidents of police brutality—predominately White juries, judges, and prosecutors protect officers with such an imagined legal shield. Enhanced police training, policies, and equipment — like body and dashboard cameras, which have proven useful in the legal battle against Oliver — could help.
But in some cases, the reality is that it simply may be more effective to change the people.