On Saturday night, a white police officer in Balch Springs, Texas, shot a rifle at a car as it drove away from a party carrying five unarmed teenagers and hit 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in the head, killing him. Days before, the United States Supreme Court left intact a federal court decision throwing out a lawsuit against a Houston police officer who shot an unarmed Latino man in the back because the officer said “he did [it] to protect himself.”
Police originally said they heard gunfire when responding to a call about underage drinking at a house party, and shot at a vehicle that was backing down the street towards them in an “aggressive manner.” But on Monday, Police Chief Jonathan Haber said that body-cam footage showed the car was driving away when Officer Roy Oliver opened fire. Jordan’s 16-year-old brother and their three friends were detained at the scene and taken away from Jordan’s wounded body; Jordan died at the hospital.
On Tuesday evening, the department announced it had fired Oliver. The Edwards family has asked supporters to postpone protests until after Jordan’s funeral and to refrain from violence against police. The investigation has been turned over to the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department.
Studies show that police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings, and if they are charged, they are very rarely convicted, because officers are not only presumed innocent but also believed to be more credible than civilians. At the same time, the presumption of guilt and dangerousness shifts the burden to Black and brown people to navigate police encounters safely. An analysis of FBI data from 2010 to 2012 showed Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police.
The killing of Jordan Edwards throws into sharp relief the “disturbing trend” identified by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent from the Court’s decision on Monday in Salazar-Limon v. City of Houston, Texas. “We have not hesitated to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity in cases involving the use of force,” she wrote. “But we rarely intervene where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity in these same cases.”
In 2010, Houston police officer Chris Thompson shot Ricardo Salazar-Limon in the back, severing his spine and paralyzing him from the waist down. Salazar-Limon said he was walking away from the officer when Thompson yelled “Stop” and fired his gun. Thompson said he fired after Salazar-Limon reached toward his waistband. Salazar-Limon was unarmed. He sued Thompson for using excessive force, but the courts credited Thompson’s version of events and, finding no factual dispute despite Salazar-Limon’s clearly contrary statement, granted summary judgment to Thompson.
Justice Sotomayor pointed out that, by letting that decision stand, the Court “leaves in place a judgment that accepts the word of one party over the word of another” in a case that should have been put to a jury. The tendency of courts to credit officers’ version of events is especially troubling, she observed, in light of the “increasing frequency of incidents in which unarmed men allegedly reach for empty waistbands when facing armed officers.” Citing an article collecting such cases, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “That these cases are increasingly common makes it even more important for lower courts–confronted with such inconsistencies–to let the jury exercise its role as the arbiter of credibility disputes.”
The Court’s decision to shield Thompson from being held accountable by a jury was echoed this week by the Justice Department’s decision not to bring federal civil rights charges against the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officer who shot Alton Sterling last year as Sterling was lying on his back with two officers on top of him. The officer claimed Sterling was reaching for a weapon in his pants pocket when he was shot and killed.