In January 2016, a Mesa, Ariz., police officer shot and killed Daniel Shaver after he begged for his life. Last week, a Maricopa County jury found former officer Philip Brailsford not guilty of second-degree murder and reckless manslaughter after only six hours of deliberation. The same day, a U.S. District judge sentenced former North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Slager to 20 years in prison for the April 2015 murder of Walter Scott after a traffic stop.
Shaver, 26, was white. Scott, 50, was black. Both victims were unarmed.
Shaver’s killing received significantly less media attention than Scott’s, and that discrepancy hurt, not helped, the Black Lives Matter cause, wrote Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic. As the movement aims for police reform, a focus on white victims can be “part of the remedy,” he wrote.
Of the more than 900 people killed by police this year nationwide, about 1 in 10 were shootings of unarmed people like Shaver and Scott. About two-thirds of all people killed by police in 2015 were engaged in violent crime or property destruction.
Police kill African-Americans at a disproportionate rate: African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population but account for 24 percent of police shooting deaths, and they are 2.5 times more likely to be killed in a police shooting than whites. This could explain why the most publicized deaths have been those of African-American suspects shot by white police officers even though white deaths at the hands of police are double the number of African-American ones, according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. Numbers by race are similar for 2015-17.
“Unjust killings of black people alone should have been enough to prompt … reforms,” wrote Friedersdorf. But given the overall number, a strategy of “publicizing and protesting egregious instances of white people being killed would do much” to effect change in policing.
Shaver’s killing happened when police responded to a 911 call about a man with a gun seen in the window of a hotel room. Shaver had been drinking with friends inside the room and brandished his pest control pellet gun. Six police officers arrived and assumed the suspect was armed. Shaver lay prone in the hallway, begging not to be shot. He then appeared to move his hand toward his belt, and a police officer shot him five times.
Footage from Brailsford’s body camera only became available for public viewing the day the jury found him not guilty. Some of Brailsford’s body and gun are visible in the graphic camera scene, but the shouting voice belongs to fellow officer Sgt. Charles Langley.
Reform advocates believe harsher sentencing of convicted officers will influence future police behavior in tense situations. But this is the opposite of what many studies show: Harsher punishments don’t deter most crime, though certainty of punishment might.
“[T]he best way to reduce all crime is to change the culture,” wrote retired Reno police officer and criminal justice professor Tim Dee, who cited years of “glorification of violence and general misbehavior in popular media,” as well as thug and drug activity among sports stars and celebrities. Truly changing culture would mean exhorting police officers to see all citizens from a Biblical perspective, battling the effects of sin while dealing carefully with the life of each person made in God’s image.