Road Rage, Then a Shot. For a Police Officer, It is Called Self-Defense

Over the course of two days in early July of last year, three black men, each of them under 40, were killed by police officers in different parts of the country — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; Philando Castile, outside of St. Paul, and Delrawn Small, in a case that drew far less national attention, in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn.

Video captured aspects of the shootings in all three instances, but in none of them were the harrowing images sufficient to render the sort of justice that activists and so many who mourned the dead had been seeking. In June, federal prosecutors involved in the Sterling investigation announced that there was inadequate evidence to bring civil rights charges against the officers responsible for the killing. Although the millions who watch these videos might regard them as overwhelming confirmation of abuse, again and again the “proof” is determined to be iffy. The Sterling case echoed that of Ramarley Graham, to cite just one example, shot at his home in the Bronx by a white police officer who ultimately faced no federal civil rights charges either (and no trial in state court after an indictment for manslaughter was thrown out because of prosecutorial error).

Over the summer, the police officer who shot Mr. Castile was acquitted of all criminal charges, and this past week, after three days of deliberation, a Brooklyn jury cleared Wayne Isaacs of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Mr. Small, who had been on his way home from a barbecue with his girlfriend, her teenage daughter and the couple’s new baby when he was killed.

Of all the deaths that have distinguished and propelled the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps no other offers more powerful illustration of the dangerously broad latitude we give police officers to make claims of self-defense when they gun down civilians. As Mr. Small’s girlfriend, Zaquanna Albert, testified during the trial, Mr. Isaacs, an off-duty police officer in an unmarked car, had twice cut them off as they were traveling down Atlantic Avenue in the far left lane, after a long afternoon and evening of celebrating the July 4 holiday.

Driving with a baby in the car is a fraught enterprise under any circumstance, and Mr. Small was perhaps understandably undone by a maneuver that could have landed his family in an accident. He had a long history as a caretaker. His mother died of AIDS when she was 29, Mr. Small’s sister, Victoria Davis, told me during a break in the trial one afternoon, and he had tried to protect his younger siblings from a horrible foster-care situation. He had two older children with two other women, Sharon Seward and Monique Parker, both of whom remained close to Mr. Small and attended the trial proceedings. Mr. Small had been a longtime father figure to another child of Ms. Parker’s.

During the trial, when images of Mr. Small’s bloodied body were shown in the courtroom, the women in his life began to sob, and the judge ordered a brief recess. A video that had gone into circulation not long after Mr. Small was killed showed him approaching Mr. Isaac’s car from the driver’s side and then almost immediately getting shot and falling to the ground. Mr. Isaacs, who was represented by Stephen C. Worth, a lawyer who has made his name defending police officers who have killed civilians, said that Mr. Small had punched Mr. Isaacs through an open car window, something the video did not indicate.

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Filming Cops
Filming Cops 5618 posts

Filming Cops was started in 2010 as a conglomerative blogging service documenting police abuse. The aim isn’t to demonize the natural concept of security provision as such, but to highlight specific cases of State-monopolized police brutality that are otherwise ignored by traditional media outlets.

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