Bernard Bailey was climbing into the cab of his truck in front of a police station. Levar Jones was reaching for his wallet after being pulled over for not wearing a seat belt. Earnest Satterwhite Sr. had just been stopped after taking off during a DUI traffic stop. All three unarmed black men were shot by white police officers in South Carolina.
And defying expectations fostered by limited data and public perception, the state has brought charges against the three officers, all within the last four months.
Nationally, little is known about how often police officers use excessive force or what kind of judicial consequences they face for those actions, because of a lack of reporting regulations. According to a recent Bowling Green State University study, there were almost 7,000 arrest of nonfederal sworn law enforcement officers from 2005 to 2011, about 10 percent of which involved the officers’ having allegedly “pulled, pointed, held or fired a gun and/or threatened someone with a gun.” At least 70 percent of the firearm misuse occurred while on duty, it found. Missing, however, is conviction data.
South Carolina’s recent indictments are more than Cleveland residents expect will happen in their city. In a recent report, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found the Cleveland Police Department reckless, poorly trained in firearm use and showing patterns of excessive, unnecessary force. The report emerged little over a week after a 12-year-old African-American boy holding a pellet gun was shot and killed late last month by a white officer in a city park.
Recent police shooting deaths of unarmed black men around the country have prompted Amnesty International USA to call for a DOJ review of police use of force and to commit to publishing national data on such incidents. “Communities, particularly those of color, have a right to expect to be protected by police and should not have to live in fear of them,” said Steven Hawkins, the organization’s executive director.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has called for an end of U.S. police practices that disproportionately target blacks.
But others are more optimistic. “I think there’s something different happening in South Carolina in prosecutors' and solicitors’ offices who are asking for and receiving these indictments,” said University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, who studies the regulation of police forces. “I think communities are more engaged in talking about policing issues, and I think prosecutors are aware of that and, to some extent, responsive to it.”
“A great deal of head scratching comes from how little we know,” Stoughton said of the lack of data related to police officer arrests. Grand jury proceedings, in which prosecutors pick evidence and laws to present and make recommendations, are cloaked in secrecy, he added.
He also said he believes the indictments were “inevitably influenced” by the Brown and Garner cases. “I don’t know if we would have seen the three indictments that we’ve seen recently here in South Carolina if we had gone back a year or so, prior to August,” he said.
“There are large and important sections of the population that have deep race-based concerns about police. And dismissing those as exaggerated or arguing their legitimacy is not going to get us to a more comfortable situation,” Stoughton said.
Officers need significantly more training in de-escalation tactics, he added, and allegations of misconduct should be investigated by independent agencies. “As it exists now, the legal system is not well equipped to create a trusting relationship between police agencies and communities,” he said.
“When you have a system that needs as much correction as policing does and is perceived to, sometimes you need events that shake things up in a pretty big way before you can get on the track of reform,” he said.