Another unarmed black youth was killed, this time in Austin, on Monday. The basic facts are, sadly, not unfamiliar in this city that has progressed from precluding African-Americans in its explosive growth and prosperity to struggling just to curtail their mass exodus. But, hopefully, the details of this case may allow a new narrative to emerge, one that seeks systemic changes in the relationship between law enforcement and underserved communities.
David Joseph was naked, so it was clear that he was unarmed, a detail that has clouded other less straightforward cases. And the officer was black, which shifts the focus away from his individual prejudices to a system at large that has facilitated these types of deadly confrontations.
Officer Geoffrey Freeman, who has been an Austin Police Department officer since 2005,has been placed on administrative leave pending the investigation (standard procedure). To this point in his career, he had only received positive marks including “numerous commendations for his work on investigations and with a group that provides homes for troubled and abused children.”
It is easy to be outraged at this incident. It is horrifically unfair. You can’t help but get that sinking feeling for the family when you see his name and his smiling face in the various photos that have cropped up online. That feeling makes it easier to concentrate outrage on the individual officer who pulled the trigger than on the family’s terrible loss.
The Austin American Statesman reports: “Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles police captain who specializes in use-of-force issues, said if Freeman thought Joseph was capable of overpowering him, and possibly taking his gun away, the shooting might have been justified, especially if there was little distance between the two.”
As the picture of what led to the shooting becomes more clear, it may become apparent that Freeman did not violate his code of conduct or his training procedures, as Meyer suggested. And what if he didn’t? Does that make the shooting justified? Of course not.
What should also be under review here is why de-escalation tactics aren’t the first tool being reached for. Why don’t officers’ utility belts include more non-lethal options? Why are armed police officers so often the only government outreach experienced by those who have already been failed by our education and mental health systems?
The fact that this kid was 17, naked, and acting erratically suggests he may have been experiencing either mental health issues or possibly been on drugs, but neither deserves the death penalty. These types of incidents continue to erode trust between law enforcement and the community. They force a second thought by citizens who need help from first responders and may benefit more from mental health professionals, and a strong social safety net, rather than law enforcement.
Many local and state activists have pushed for the use of body cameras by officers. The state passed a bill that would allow local departments access to grants and Austin city council accelerated a plan for APD officers. The Austin plan, at least in the short term, will focus on downtown while most of these high profile shootings have taken place on the more economically depressed East side.
Without a shift in tactics, though, body cameras may only give us a front row seat to injustice. If the officer had been equipped with a body camera, we might have some better answers for what happened, but whether it would have prevented it from happening in the first place is harder to know.
Regardless of how this particular officer is held accountable, justice won’t be achieved by his punishment. Justice can only be achieved when the entire system is held accountable and actual preventative measures are put into place.
When CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas) was asked why they didn’t initially support the state bill for body cameras, executive director Charley Wilkison said,
“They are being trained to be police officers and to think like police officers, protect you and your family, your business and your community and they’re not necessarily trained in political correctness, so we worry about it every day.”
Body cameras aren’t about phishing expeditions or capturing private conversations. They are one part of a larger push for criminal justice reform that goes all the way back to community policing and how officers forge better relationships with citizens. We have a lot of work to do to end unnecessary state violence. And while it may begin with the indictment of a single police officer, it will require a paradigm shift that brings law enforcement in as a partner along with other social services to improve the overall quality of life for our most vulnerable communities. That’s what will ultimately create a safer environment for officers and the community they are sworn to protect and serve.