It has been several days since a police officer in Minneapolis shot a 40-year-old woman in the alley behind her house. Since then, we’ve learned little about what happened.
Here’s what we do know: On Saturday night, local police responded to a 911 call about a possible assault in an alley behind the home of Justine Damond, who worked as a yoga and meditation instructor. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, officers pulled in to the alley, and Damond, still in her pajamas, approached the driver’s side door. At some point, the officer in the passenger’s seat shot and killed Damond. There were no weapons found at the scene, meaning Damond was unarmed.
That’s it. We haven’t heard the 911 call that prompted police to go to Damond’s house, and we don’t have an explanation for why the officer opened fire. The officers’ body cameras weren’t on during the shooting, and the police car’s camera apparently didn’t capture the incident.
The shooting has quickly received international attention, because Damond is from Australia and was set to be married soon. Damond’s family in Australia is now demanding a federal investigation into the shooting.
The shooting is under investigation by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). The officer, who hasn’t been officially identified, was put on paid administrative leave, as is standard after a shooting.
The BCA said it will release more information on the shooting “once initial interviews with incident participants and any witnesses are complete.”
In a statement on Monday, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said he’s “asked for the investigation to be expedited to provide transparency and to answer as many questions as quickly as we can.”
The shooting raises several questions: Why weren’t the officers’ body cameras on? Why has so little information about the shooting been released? And especially due to the international attention, why is it that American police seem to resort to force more often than law enforcement officers in other developed countries around the world?
Police didn’t have their body cameras on when they shot Damond
The simplest explanation for why we know so little about the shooting: Police didn’t have their body cameras on when an officer opened fire.
This gets to one of the major ongoing problems with the devices as more and more police departments adopt them. While cameras are meant to hold police accountable, it is ultimately the police who control when the cameras turn on. That makes it possible for cops, on purpose or not, to effectively cover up an act of bad policing.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the officers’ failure to turn on their cameras violates Minneapolis police policy, which has been in place for body cameras since at least 2016.
In particular, policy 4-223 says that officers should manually activate their cameras “prior to any use of force. If a [body-worn camera] is not activated prior to a use of force, it shall be activated as soon as it is safe to do so.” It also says that officers should turn on their cameras during “any contact involving criminal activity,” “any contact that is, or becomes adversarial,” and “any citizen contact.” All of these rules indicate that the cameras should have been rolling even before police shot Damond.
But it’s one thing to have these rules on their books and another to get officers to actually follow them. The ACLU of Minnesota, for its part, on Monday called for Minneapolis police to add potential penalties for failing to follow the policy “to ensure better compliance and accountability.”
American police use force more often than police in other developed countries
Police officers in the US shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people a year, according to the Washington Post’s database — far more than other developed countries like the UK, Australia, Japan, and Germany, where police officers might go an entire year without killing more than a dozen people or even anyone at all.
For example, an analysis by the Guardian found that “US police kill more in days than other countries do in years.” Between 1992 and 2011, Australian police shot and killed 94 people. In 2015, US police shot and killed 97 people just in March. These differences are not explained by population, since the US is about 10 times as populous as Australia but, based on the Guardian’s count, has hundreds of times the police shootings.
One explanation for this disparity is that violent crime is much more common in the US, putting police in more situations in which the use of force is necessary. As data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows, the US homicide rate throughout the 2000s was more than three times the rate of Canada, four times that of the UK, and more than 10 times that of Germany.
But why does the US have a much higher violent crime rate than other countries? One explanation: Americans are much more likely to own guns than their peers around the world. This means that conflicts — not just between police and civilians but between civilians — are more likely to escalate into deadly, violent encounters.
The research bears this out: More guns lead to more gun violence. And for police in particular, one study found that every 10 percent increase in firearm ownership correlated with 10 additional officers killed at the state level over a 15-year period.
This is a result of cultural and policy decisions made by the US that have made firearms far more available in America than most of the world. For American police officers, this means they not only will encounter more guns, but they expect to encounter more guns, making them more likely to anticipate and perceive a threat and use deadly force as a result.
Other factors, such as differences in police training as well as socioeconomic and cultural variables, play a role as well. But whatever the cause, America simply has more police violence than comparable countries.
Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting
In response to the Damond shooting, many people are already demanding that the police officer who shot her be held accountable and possibly face trial. But police in America are generally given wide latitude to use force.
Legally, police officers’ most important line of defense in these shootings is whether they reasonably believed their lives were in immediate danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat.
In the 1980s, a pair of Supreme Court decisions — Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor — set up a framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.
Constitutionally, “police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances,” David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, previously told Dara Lind for Vox. The first circumstance is “to protect their life or the life of another innocent party” — what departments call the “defense-of-life” standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.
The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He’d stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn’t shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, “they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight.”
The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief that there is a threat.
That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who’d survived his encounter with police officers, but who’d been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack.
The court didn’t rule on whether the officers’ treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn’t justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were “objectively reasonable,” given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.
What’s “objectively reasonable” changes as the circumstances change. “One can’t just say, ‘Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,’” Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, previously said.
In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.
For some critics, the question isn’t what’s legally justified but rather what’s preventable. “We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable,” Ronald Davis, a former police chief who previously headed the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police “need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun,” he added. “When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot.”
Police are rarely prosecuted for shootings
Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.
“There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility,” David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, previously told Amanda Taub for Vox. “And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction.”
If police are charged, they’re very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
The statistics suggest that it would be a truly rare situation if the officer who shot and killed Damond was charged and convicted of a crime.
This is one reason body cameras were thought to be crucial: If people could just see more police uses of force, the thinking went, they could see how unjustified many of these incidents are. The Damond shooting shows one reason body cameras can’t do all of that work by themselves.