Three cases in which white police officers killed black men are in the public spotlight this week, highlighting the difficulties of determining when officers should be criminally prosecuted in such instances and renewing questions over the Trump administration’s commitment to counter civil rights violations by police officers.
In one of the most highly publicized police shootings in recent years, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African-American street vendor, was shot and killed by two white police officers last July as he allegedly reached for his gun while pinned to the ground by the officers outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The shooting, captured on video and widely circulated on social media, sparked days of protests and calls for an investigation.
But the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Wednesday that its 10-month investigation into the shooting found “insufficient evidence” to bring civil rights charges against the two officers involved in the killing.
The announcement came a day after a former South Carolina officer pleaded guilty to a civil rights offense for shooting an unarmed black man last year, and followed the killing over the weekend of an African-American teenager by a white police officer in a Dallas suburb.
In the South Carolina case, former Officer Michael Slager of the North Charleston police department pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense for killing Walter Scott Jr. last April, the Justice Department announced on Tuesday.
The announcement said that Slager stopped Scott over a broken brake light and then shot him eight times as he fled the scene “even though it was objectively unreasonable under the circumstance.”
In the Dallas case, Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old high school freshman, was shot and killed Saturday night by a white police officer as Edwards and his elder brother drove away from a party the police had come to investigate for underage drinking.
The officer, Roy Oliver, was fired on Tuesday but has not been charged. The Dallas County Sheriff’s office and the Dallas County District Attorney are investigating.
Lauren Hagee, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Dallas field office, said the bureau is "prepared to investigate" the case if local law enforcement agencies uncover information about a potential civil rights violation.
Shootings trigger protests, debate
The three cases with three different outcomes mirror a spate of similar shootings in recent years that sparked angry protests, gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement, and led former President Barack Obama's Justice Department to investigate and impose reform measures on a number of embattled police departments.
Ngozi Ndulue, the senior director of Criminal Justice Programs for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s largest civil rights organization, said that while the outcome of the South Carolina shooting case was encouraging, she was troubled by the Justice Department’s decision not to charge the two officers in Louisiana.
Referring to the shooting outside Dallas, she said, “We have this homicide where we have on camera who committed it and yet no arrest. That’s very troubling.”
Randy Sutton, national spokesman for Blue Lives Matter, a police support organization that was started in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that led protests against police shootings, hailed the Justice Department’s decision to close the Louisiana investigation.
“When an individual is armed with a gun and violently resists arrest and attempts to get a hold of the gun, then police officers have every right in the world to defend themselves,” Sutton said.
On the other hand, he called the South Carolina officer’s guilty plea “a valid prosecution” and said he was disturbed by the shooting of the black teenager outside Dallas. “This is one of those tragic sets of circumstances that makes every police officer cringe,” he said.
Deadly police shootings are not uncommon. The Washington Post has tracked 333 fatal police shootings in 2017, including 83 shootings of African-Americans. No federal criminal charges have been announced in connection with any of these cases.
Since January, the Justice department has announced at least six cases involving charges brought against law enforcement officers. But all appear to have been originated under the Obama administration.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to make fighting violent crime a priority for the Justice Department and pledged support for law enforcement agencies but he has also said he remains committed to holding law breaking police officers to account.
“As our department works to support the courageous and professional law enforcement personnel who risk their lives every day to protect us, we will also ensure that police officers who abuse their sacred trust are made to answer for their misconduct,” Sessions said Tuesday in announcing the guilty plea in the South Carolina case.
But Sutton said the Justice Department is unlikely to investigate police shootings on a “routine basis” as it once did under the Obama administration.
“The Obama administration weaponized the Department of Justice against law enforcement in a way that I have never seen ever before and it had a very destructive effect on the criminal justice system,” Sutton said.
But Ndulue said the criticism is unfair.
“The Obama administration really took pains to ensure that there was a conversation begun around how law enforcement and communities can work together for public safety,” she said, mentioning Obama’s creation of a task force on 21st-century policing in the wake of a spate of police shootings of blacks.