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BY CONTRIBUTOR | Nate Morris
“We’re killing this motherf%$#^er.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Officer Jason Stockley pulled into the parking lot of the Church’s Chicken in the Walnut Park neighborhood in St. Louis at noon on December 20th, 2011, after witnessing what he described in his statement as “a hand-to-hand drug transaction between two Black males.”
Surveillance video from the restaurant shows Officer Stockley and his partner parking their squad car behind Anthony Lamar Smith’s vehicle. Officer Stockley then approaches Anthony’s vehicle carrying an AK-47 rifle. Anthony puts his car in reverse, hitting the police SUV before speeding away.
Officer Stockley fires several shots down the street at the fleeing vehicle before he and his partner re-enter their SUV and engage in a chase through adjacent neighborhoods at speeds that reach 87 mph. After nearly five-minute, the officers reach Anthony’s vehicle at a nearby intersection and purposefully ram into it at 41 mph. Both officers quickly approach the driver’s side window, Stockley again carrying both his personal AK-47 rifle and his police-issued handgun. In his statement, Stockley claims that Anthony was holding a silver handgun. Within seconds of approaching the driver’s side of the vehicle, Officer Stockley fires five shots at close range, fatally wounding Anthony Lamar Smith.
As other officers arrive, Stockley returns to his vehicle to put away his personal rifle. He then goes back to Anthony’s vehicle and stands, speaking with the other officers on the scene. One officer is heard asking Stockley, “Did you get him?” At no point do officers attempt to render aid
After a few minutes, Stockely returns to his vehicle and is seen rummaging through a duffel bag in the back seat of the police SUV while other officers remove Anthony’s body from his car and lay it, exposed, in the middle of the intersection. At this point, Stockley then enters into Antony’s car and sits in the driver’s seat, while Smith’s body remains uncovered in the cold, winter rain until paramedics arrived.
Stockley stayed on the force for another two years before resigning, and it was not until 2016, after new evidence emerged which could not be publicly disclosed, that he was charged with first-degree murder.
St. Louis prosecutors claimed that Stockley intentionally took Anthony Lamar Smith’s life on that December day. Court documents would reveal that Stockley could be heard on police dash-cam video exclaiming, “We’re killing this motherfucker; don’t you know it!” The prosecution argued that Stockley breached protocol in a number of ways, including by carrying and discharging his own, personal, military-grade automatic weapon. The D.A. also argued that Stockley planted the handgun he claimed Anthony was holding when he entered into Smith’s vehicle. Officer Stockley’s was the only DNA found on the handgun he claimed belonged to Smith.
On September 15, 2017, Stockley was found not guilty of first-degree murder and absolved of criminal wrongdoing in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Since January 1, 2015, more than 2600 individuals have been shot and killed by police officers. Twelve of those killings have taken place in the city of Tulsa. During this same time frame, in every incident of a police shooting death in our city involving a black man, the victim was either unarmed or showing significant signs of mental illness.
A recent study by Bowling Green University found that over a twelve-year span from January 2005 to April 2017, officers were charged with misconduct in fatal on-duty shootings only 80 times. Of those 80 cases, only 28 (35%) resulted in a conviction or guilty plea, though four of these 28 convictions were ultimately overturned on appeal. The median incarceration sentence for those officers convicted was just nine months.
These figures become increasingly startling when juxtaposed with arrests for drug-related crimes. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2015 alone 574,641 individuals were arrested and charged with simple possession of marijuana, nearly 60% of whom were people of color. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted by Congress in 1986, many of these people may face a required one-year prison sentence for a first offense, three years for a second, and a life sentence for a third offense.
Since 1980, the number of Americans living as a part of the criminal justice system has increased by 378%, with nearly 7 million people currently incarcerated or on parole or probation.
The conversation regarding police-related shootings frequently shifts to the notion of a few “bad cops,” a few officers who provide police as a whole with a negative image.
There are innumerable officers who seek to protect and serve their communities well, and do so with their whole heart. However, this conversation will not be a driver of change if it consistently exists in a space of “good cops vs. bad.” Empirical data makes plain that it is almost statistically impossible for officers to truly be harbingers of justice when the system in which they operate is inherently unjust.
This injustice does not solely reside in the laws that officers must swear to uphold, but also in the training they receive and the often deeply-lacking systems of accountability within their departments. As evidenced in the findings of the Department of Justice reports on police misconduct in Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities, officers are frequently trained in a manner which requires them to view people and communities of color as criminal. The DOJ stated in its report on the Chicago Police Department this past January that the department “failed to train officers in de-escalation” and failed to “conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force.” Former Attorney General Lynch went on to state that the CPD engaged in “racial, ethnic and other disparities in use of force”; a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and a practice which “deeply eroded community trust.”
Officer Jason Stockley did not know Anthony Lamar Smith when he met him. He did not know that he was a 24-year-old father to a young girl, and because of his implicit racial biases, reinforced by his training and a lack of accountability, he didn’t care. Instead, he deemed Anthony a “motherfucker” deserving of death.
Similarly, Officer Betty Shelby did not know Terence Crutcher when she met him. She did not know that he was an active community member, a college student, a beloved father, and friend. Her implicit racial biases, reinforced by her training, aided her criminalization of the very citizen she was sworn to serve and protect. And because of a lack of accountability, she also didn’t care. Instead, she and her colleagues deemed Crutcher to be “a bad dude,” a threat that needed to be eliminated for her own well-being.
Both of these individuals and many others are free today because they were granted the right to protection and self-preservation by our criminal justice system; rights which were not granted to their fellow citizens.
According to a Washington Post database, as of September 16, there have been 697 fatal law-enforcement shootings in the United States in 2017. One in every twenty individuals killed this year have been unarmed and one in every five were mentally ill. These figures are on pace to eclipse the data from 2016.
And, while holding those officers who break the law accountable is an undeniably critical next step, it is only a small part of a long and arduous race. It is a race which requires all of us, and particularly white Americans, to reflect on our own biases, our own morality and the deep-seated cracks in our nation’s foundation to determine whether we believe this nation is stronger when we view one another through a lens of criminality or a lens of shared humanity.
Until that time, the people of Saint Louis march again for an all-too-familiar purpose, and the rest of nation is left to decide where it stands: whether it will remain silent and complicit, or will rise to the occasion and join in the ongoing fight to ensure that, one day, justice in America will truly mean justice for all.