5 Things You Didn’t Know About Officer-Involved Shootings
You know how it is. White people be drivin' like this, while black people be drivin' like this ... and then cops be pullin' those black people over and killin' 'em like this. And for the most part, they've been getting away with it. Now, when a grand jury decides not to indict in cases like these, it feels like a grave injustice. And sometimes it is. But, like it or not, the system is working exactly as it's designed to. We talked to "Steve," who served on the grand jury for an officer-involved shooting, and he told us ...
Grand Juries Keep Things Surprisingly Casual
It varies from state to state, but grand juries differ from trial juries in a few key ways. There's no judge, just the prosecuting attorney presenting evidence. It's probably the least formal interaction that ever takes place in a courthouse:
"Other than the paperwork associated with the indictments, what format the proceedings take is pretty informal most of the time, and each jury gets to decide their own process," Steve says. Generally speaking, they frown on "just flipping a coin to get it over with," but it's relatively open.
"Let's spice up the proceedings. Who's down for trial by combat?"
Also, a grand jury doesn't serve on just one case. In Steve's state, everyone The Man wants to charge with a felony has to be formally indicted by a grand jury.
"We heard probably a thousand cases during the three-month term," he says. That makes it hard to screen for bias. "The screening to serve on a grand jury is a lot like being screened to serve on a regular jury, but the questions are more general," Steve says. For example, Steve told the judge who screened him that he was good friends with a detective and "if one of his cases came up, I'd pretty much believe whatever he said."
He was told to recuse himself in such a scenario, but being friendly with officers in general didn't disqualify him. Turns out Steve is an honest guy and did recuse himself when he felt his bias might affect an outcome, but he was essentially working on the honor system.
So point for Steve, but expecting people to excuse themselves from the topics they care most about is still a dumb system.
Fortunately, most of these cases were "rubber stamp formalities," because "prosecutors throw out the cases they can't win before they even get to a grand jury." However, one case came up during Steve's term where that wasn't an option. "When it comes to officer-involved shootings, they don't get a choice. All the evidence has to be presented to a grand jury, and the grand jury decides whether or not to indict."
Since the job of the grand jury isn't "to decide if someone is guilty beyond reasonable doubt, [but] only [to] decide whether or not the accused probably committed the crime," most cases are decided in literal seconds. "I think one time we got through a dozen DWIs in about five minutes," Steve says.
A driver who pukes a Miller High Life bottle cap and demands the cop play "Free Bird" doesn't exactly require a Netflix documentary breakdown.
But the officer shooting case involved "11 hours of being presented evidence and interviewing witnesses spread out over several days." And for a switch-up, the jury themselves asked the questions. "The interviews happened in two stages. First a lawyer would ask a series of questions, then the members of the jury would get a chance to ask questions."
Yes, our justice system includes audience Q&A's. This mostly comes up in the form of character witnesses for the victim.
"It's common in cases like this to bring out people who knew the victim to talk about what kind of person they were." This is what's known as "hearsay," and it's thrown out the nearest thing they can find to a window in a trial, but not in a grand jury. "It's the only time when hearsay is admissible."
"There's no way Bob could be the Cannibal Killer! He's ... um ... vegan. Yeah"
Given that kind of flexibility, and because there's "not a judge there to say you're not following the law," things can get a little more subjective than most juries are allowed. "There were things that came up -- like, even in the grand jury room after we'd been coached on things, there were people on the jury who felt that the officers shot too much. And there's really no legal definition of 'shot too much.'"
In that case, we would like to suggest one: Rambo IV.
Even The Police Don't Have All The Evidence Until The Grand Jury Is Through
Here's a quick, hopefully vague-enough-to-be-anonymous rundown of the case: Police responded to reports of a suicidal young man. While 911 was talking him down, he pointed an object at an officer. The rest went predictably.
For readers outside the U.S., this is what "predictably" means 'round these parts.
But only the jury really knows what happened. Since the officers couldn't be privy to the evidence, no details about the case were released until the verdict had been reached. "It was nearly a year between the time when the shooting took place and the time it went to a grand jury, and that entire time, the parents were left in the dark," Steve says. "No one answered their questions ... all they knew was their son called 911, then cops showed up and shot him."
During that time, the only information the public had access to came from the media, which -- according to Steve -- didn't have a goddamn clue. "The press gets it wrong every time. Every time there was a case we were involved in, when it showed upon the news, they got it wrong. I asked the attorney 'How often do they get it wrong?' and he said every single time."
With police shootings often ending in protests, shit reporting can result in more than just a retraction.
He remembers reading an interview with the victim's family where it was reported that "police account differs from witness testimony,' and it actually doesn't." He also remembers that "they had a complete misquote right after it happened ... They said 'officers confronted the man and the man went back inside.' That's a misquote, which isn't at all what happened and I don't believe what was said."
Meanwhile, in the courthouse, "we read the 911 transcript, had the 911 transcript read to us, listened to the 911 tape, heard audio recordings from each officer's radio from the moment they were dispatched to the moment the incident was over, watched dashcam video from all the police cars, heard testimony witnesses who were at the scene, received a full ballistics presentation where they went over who fired how many shots and where each of those shots ended up and how it got there," he says. "As absurd as it sounds, after hearing all the evidence, and interviewing the officers, I'm fairly confident members of the grand jury knew more about what happened that night than the police who were there."
He might be right. None of that stuff gets released until after the grand jury has made its decision. Emotions understandably run high in these cases, but if you're angry about a grand jury decision based on what the media has told you, it's important to keep in mind that you might not have any of the facts, let alone all of them.
In the news, having nothing to report is no excuse for not reporting if you want to keep your job.
Serving On A Grand Jury Will Break Your Heart
One of the hardest parts for Steve was interviewing the parents of the victim. "I can't even write about this without crying," he says. "To lose a child like that and to have circumstances around their death kept secret from you for that long is impossible for me to justify."
If anything, Steve had begun to identify with the victim to a haunting degree. "'Suicide by cop' is a term we're all familiar with," he says. "I used to flippantly write off the victims in these stories as somehow being cowardly. Before hearing this case, I felt like when someone did what [the victim] did, not only were the police justified, but the victim deserved what they got ... [But] I've lived with anxiety and depression most of my life. If I didn't have the support network I have in my life, it could just as easily have been me."
No one likes to think about how little goes into making that final big decision.
Then the victim's mother "caught [up] on the way out, and we talked a bit."
While careful to avoid discussing the case with her, he felt obligated to try to comfort her. "I told her that I was really sorry she had to wait this long, and that I wished I could tell her more about what the officers said and what they'd done, because it was clear she felt like something was wrong. She had suspicions ... It felt like if she had gotten the chance to talk to people, she would have known, and she would not be going the way she was going," Steve said, referring to comments she'd made to the press.
Police Protocol Is Nothing Like The Movies
"The subject of 'Why did they shoot so much?' came up," Steve told us. "I'm sure Cracked has written about it before, but there's a disconnect between what people think happens when you get shot and what actually happens. I apologize for the bluntness here, but there's no sensitive way to talk about this. In general, it takes people a long time to die after being shot, and if they're not dead, they can generally shoot back. This is why police are trained to keep shooting until the threat is removed."
Watching Bruce Willis machine gun his way through a crowd kinda leads you to forget that 95 percent of gunshots are survivable.
You'd think "lying in a pool of blood" is a good place to put that bar, but "the definition of 'threat is removed' varies," Steve said. "As an example, if someone has a gun pointed at someone, they're a threat until they let go of the gun ... [I've] heard stories I'm sure all cops hear during their training. Stories where someone takes a shot through the heart and keeps fighting back for over a minute. Stories where someone is shot in the chest, drops their weapon, and proceeds to chew out the cop that shot them until paramedics arrive."
"Also, police miss a lot," he says. "I'm a decent marksman (classified as such by IDPA rules). If I'm a little nervous, it's easy to completely miss a man-sized target. Which is seven yards away. And can't shoot back. While I'm going slow enough to count shots. While the ballistics specialist was presenting evidence, I remarked that I was surprised how one officer who had fired rapidly hadn't shot the ground in front of him, to which he replied along the lines of, 'Oh, he did, I just didn't mention it yet. The plants in the yard got it pretty bad.'"
Don't worry, those plants had it coming.
"People have these imaginary things that 'good guys' never do in a gunfight," Steve says. "A good guy never shoots first. A good guy never shoots someone in the back. Never mind super-marksman abilities like shooting guns out of people's hands."
Maybe it doesn't look awesome, but "not only is drawing a gun and shooting behind you while retreating possible, but it's something competition shooters specifically practice on a regular basis," Steve told us. "As for shooting first, there are typically two guys in a gun fight: the guy who shoots first and the guy who gets shot."
Finally, a legitimate reason to be pissed about the Star Wars special editions.
There Aren't Always "Sides" That Can "Win"
"While we found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of the officers, so many things could have averted this tragedy," Steve says. "Whenever there's a tragedy, you go back over it a thousand times wondering 'what if.' There are clear 'what if' scenarios that end in [the victim] being alive today."
Those what if's are really starting to mount up.
In the end, it came down to a simple but tragic miscommunication: "The operator was talking [the victim] down, and if the officers had just waited, everything would have been fine," Steve says. "Unfortunately, the operator had no way of getting that information to them. All they knew was what they could see in front of them, and what they saw was a distraught man with a gun preparing to kill himself ... The thing that gets me about this is he'd absolutely still be alive if police just didn't show up, or if they hadn't engaged him. But of all the information they had at the time, not showing up would have been reckless."
It's not really something anyone can learn from, either: "When the case was over, I asked two friends of mine who are cops if they would want to be able to listen in to the 911 call in a situation like that," Steve says. "I was surprised when both emphatically said no. When responding to a situation like that, they need to focus on what's in front of them with no distractions. I can see their point, but it still bothers me that in this day and age, patching in to the call isn't even an option."
Because apparently having a radio three inches from your face isn't close enough to stay connected in a life-or-death situation.
In the end, according to Steve, "beyond the tangible facts of a case, guilt or innocence comes down to intentions." But this story doesn't end with the officers skipping away with a song in their hearts, freeze-framing on a jump-five. "My pastor is fond of the expression, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions,'" Steve says. "From what I could see, those officers had the best intentions, and living with the emotional consequences has been hell."
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