What did you see when you watched the police dashcam video from the night of Jonathan Ferrell’s fatal shooting? Did you see a confused young man who sought help after a late-night car accident only to have officers spook him into running by pointing their weapons at him? Or did you see an erratic young man who charged at Randall “Wes” Kerrick, putting the police officer in mortal fear and leaving him no choice but to shoot?
Your answer probably squares with what you already think about the national debate about police shootings of unarmed black men.
If you are white and think cops are unfairly criticized, you see yet another black man who could still be alive if only he awaited police orders and obeyed them.
If you are black and you see a pattern of fatally biased policing, you see one more white officer so physically intimidated by the thought of the “big bad black man” that he picks deadly force as his first option instead of the last.
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Opinions won’t divide neatly and solely along racial lines, of course. But like it or not, your racial background goes a long way toward determining how you see such matters in this country. And because the moment Ferrell and Kerrick collide happens off-camera, our biases and preconceptions flow into our reactions.
I have always suspected that Kerrick’s biggest hurdle at trial wouldn’t necessarily be the video, but the actions of the two police officers who joined him that night. The standard at issue is whether a reasonable officer, confronted with the same circumstances, would take the same action Kerrick did.
Usually, that other “reasonable officer” is a hypothetical. Here, there are two other real officers. And they are both African-American.
One, Officer Adam Neal, didn’t pull any weapon. He testified that he expected a violent confrontation but figured on subduing Ferrell by fighting him. The other, Officer Thornell Little, pulled out his Taser, fired and missed.
Kerrick pulled his service revolver.
Similar situation. Three officers. Three responses.
It will be up to the jury to decide whether Kerrick, now a former officer charged with voluntary manslaughter, was a law-upholding cop or an extrajudicial killer that night.
But it is not a coincidence that the white officer is the only one to pull his service revolver. I’m not saying Kerrick was or is a racist. I’m saying he was afraid – more afraid than the two black officers out there that night.
I’m saying that, when confronted with a black suspect or subject – especially a black man – the level of force that seems reasonable to an officer often depends on the color of that officer’s skin.
In a country where blindfolded Lady Justice symbolizes our quest for impartial courts, that’s a problem. A huge problem.
The Kerrick video won’t spark unanimous outrage, certainly not like the appalling one of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back as if he were a fleeing deer.
But in this one brief instance, we see in real time how black officers and white officers can respond in very different ways when confronted with a black man and a dicey situation.
All of the officers had reason to be jumpy. They’d been called out in the middle of the night because a woman said a man fitting Ferrell’s description tried to break into her home. And the video and testimony in the case clearly show that Ferrell ran at Kerrick just before the fatal shots.
For a white juror, that alone might be enough to suggest Kerrick committed no crime. But if I’m on that jury, my mind would keep returning to the other two officers.
Before I could ever vote to allow Kerrick to walk free, I would need a very good answer to a very simple question.
The two black officers didn’t need deadly force that night.
Why did you?
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Eric Frazier is an editorial writer and columnist at the Charlotte Observer.