It’s a topic that continues to rouse debate and rancor. Today Old Man hernandez weighs in on it. Mad Duo
Philando Castile Verdict – Not a Victory for Law Enforcement
When Philando Castile was killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez last year, I didn’t immediately speak out. I watched the video Castile’s girlfriend live-streamed, and understood it was highly inflammatory but didn’t show the actual shooting or what sparked it. Yanez’s near-panicked response after the shooting caught my attention, but I knew better than to make judgments based on public outrage or gut feeling. So I held off.
Last week Yanez was found not guilty of manslaughter in Castile’s death. I again held my tongue, and even argued online that I couldn’t give an informed opinion because I had no idea what the jury saw or heard that could have justified their decision. So I waited for the information I knew would soon come out.
Aside from not knowing the facts, I’m also biased against public outrage toward cops. I’ve been a cop 23 years and know that the media often portrays police incidents inaccurately. I’ve seen news stories about incidents I was involved in that distorted facts, and I’ve been misquoted and misidentified by a journalist (she identified me as “Officer Chris Martinez”). I’ve studied alleged incidents of racist cops murdering innocent black men for no reason, and almost every one was deliberately twisted to serve a narrative. I believe that in principle a cop should use as much force as necessary as soon as necessary, and I understand the grey areas we work in where force isn’t a math equation and doesn’t work the way Average Joe thinks it does.
After the Ferguson outrage I wrote an article explaining why the shooting of Michael Brown was justified, and the investigation showed it was in fact justified. I wrote an article explaining why the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge was justified, and that investigation also showed it was a good shooting. In another article I showed that the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, although tragic and understandably infuriating, was understandable based on what the officers reasonably believed at the time.
In another article I wrote that although the arrest of Eric Garner was petty and unnecessary, there was no reason to believe the officers involved had any intent to kill anyone. On the other hand I also wrote an article calling for the prosecution of a California officer for an incredibly stupid shooting; even though that one was bad, I know such incidents are exceedingly rare. So I had good reason to believe the evidence would show Yanez was justified in shooting Castile.
Much information has now come out. While I’m sure I don’t have all of it, I have enough to understand the dynamics of the shooting, the realities that couldn’t have been known until afterward, and the facts as Yanez understood them when he pulled the trigger. I understand the shooting well enough to determine what I would have done had I been there, and compare Yanez’s actions to what I did in similar situations.
And I’ve decided there is no way this shooting was justified.
The Dynamics of the Shooting:
On July 6th, 2016, St. Anthony, Minnesota PD Officer Jeronimo Yanez saw Philando Castile driving with his girlfriend. The girlfriend’s daughter was in the back seat. Yanez thought Castile resembled one of two suspects in a recent robbery; before the stop, he radioed that “The driver looks more like one of our suspects just ’cause of the wide-set nose,” and later said Castile gave him a “deer in the headlights look” as they passed each other. He stopped Castile for a defective brake light, then he and his partner approached the vehicle in a normal, non-high risk manner.
Yanez told Castile the reason for the traffic stop. Castile was polite and cooperative. The rest of the stop went like this:
“Yanez asks for Castile’s driver’s license and insurance. [This transcript doesn’t note it, but Castile gave Yanez his insurance card but not his license.]
Thirty seconds into the conversation, Castile begins to tell Yanez that he has a weapon.
Castile: Sir, I have to tell you I do have a …
Castile: … firearm on me.
Castile: I (inaudible)
Yanez: Don’t reach for it then.
Castile: I’m, I, I was reaching for …
Yanez: Don’t pull it out.
Castile: I’m not pulling it out.
Reynolds [Castile’s girlfriend]: He’s not.
Yanez: Don’t pull it out.
Yanez, whose hand had been near his gun, pulls out his weapon and fires seven rapid shots into the car, striking Castile five times.”
The dash camera video shows that the elapsed time from first word spoken by Yanez to the last shot was forty seconds. Yanez fired his first shot eight seconds after Castile notified him he was armed.
Castile lost consciousness as his girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting, and died shortly afterward.
What Yanez Couldn’t Have Known At The Time
Castile was carrying a .40 caliber pistol in his right front pocket. The magazine was loaded, chamber empty. His carry permit and license were in his wallet.
Castile had no history of violence or criminal history worse than traffic offenses, and no connection to the robbery Yanez thought he might have been involved in. He was on his way back home from a grocery store when he was stopped, and wasn’t committing any crime save two: his license was suspended, and he had a small bag of marijuana in the car. The marijuana is significant, for reasons I’ll explain later.
What Yanez Perceived.
Yanez fired because he thought Castile was reaching for his weapon. After the shooting another officer questioned Yanez about why he fired, and Yanez said he saw Castile “reaching down between his right leg, his right thigh area and the center console.” He went on to say,
“I, believe I continued to tell him don’t do it or don’t reach for it and he still continued to move. And, it appeared to me that be had no regard to what I was saying. He didn’t care what I was saying. He still reached down… And, at that point I, was scared and I was, in fear for my life and my partner’s life. And for the little girl in the back and the front seat passenger and he dropped his hand down and, can’t remember what I was telling him but I was telling something as his hand went down I think. And, he put his hand around something. And his hand made like a C shape type, um, type shape and it appeared to me that he was wrapping something around his fingers and almost like if I were to put my, uh, hand around my gun like putting my hand up to the butt of the gun…”
Later in the interview he said Castile’s hand looked like it was “wrapped around the butt of a gun…I just knew it was dark and I could barely see and I thought it was a firearm and I thought he was gonna shoot and kill me and I thought he was gonna shoot and kill my partner right after that.”
So I’ll List All the Reasons I Think This Shooting was Wrong
After a criminal like Alton Sterling is killed by police, we hear his friends and family claim he was a wonderful soul who’d never hurt anyone. We’re absolutely right to dismiss those claims; family and friends can ALWAYS be expected to defend a loved one, no matter what. But Philando Castile, by the officer’s account, the dash cam video and his criminal history, was not a “criminal.”
Some people will undoubtedly argue that point by saying “He was driving on a suspended license and had drugs in the car.” My response is, “So what?” Plenty of people who aren’t criminals have suspended licenses. Anyone down on their luck can let their insurance lapse, which can then lead to a ticket they can’t pay, which then leads to a suspended license. A suspension can mean a drunk driving or drug arrest, but not always. And he had a personal use amount of marijuana in the car, not a kilo. If smoking marijuana makes people criminals, a lot of service members, regular working people and even cops are or were criminals.
According to Heavy.com, Castile had received 55 tickets and been arrested twice for minor drug offenses. There were no drunk driving charges, and both drug charges were dismissed. Castile wasn’t a bad, dangerous criminal. As far as I can tell, there is no indication whatsoever that Castile was actually drawing on Yanez; Castile’s background, character, and dozens of previous stops without resistance don’t suggest he would have.
When Yanez walked up to Castile’s car and began the stop, he encountered a polite, cooperative, noncriminal driver with what appeared to be his wife and daughter during daylight hours. Nothing in the context of the stop indicated Castile was a threat. If you counter with “But Yanez thought Castile was a robbery suspect,” Yanez’s own actions disprove that. He didn’t conduct a felony stop like we would if we were stopping a dangerous felony suspect, he conducted a regular stop and approached in a casual manner. Yanez said he thought Castile was drawing on him, and I don’t see anything in the context of the stop to make that a reasonable assumption.
If you chase a murder suspect into a dark alley at 2 a.m. and he stops, turns around, says “I’m gonna kill you, pig” and reaches under his shirt, shoot. I’ll cheer for you and back you up 100%. But if you stop a regular, polite family guy who hasn’t committed any crime you’re aware of, who informs you he’s carrying and reaches toward his waist after you’ve told him to get his license, give him the benefit of the doubt. React as necessary, draw if you have to, take cover behind the pillar or whatever, but I’d highly discourage you from escalating to lethal force just based on him “reaching.”
And again, the pistol was carried with an empty chamber. Seriously, should we think this calm, cooperative, noncriminal driver with no history of violence and his girlfriend and a little girl in the car was going to pull his empty-chamber pistol from his pocket, load a round and shoot the officer?
Castile had a reason to reach for something: Yanez asked him for his license and insurance, he had only given Yanez his insurance and still had to give Yanez his license.
After Castile told Yanez he was armed, Yanez told him “Don’t reach for it.” He didn’t say “Hands up,” “Hands on the steering wheel,” or “Freeze.” He simply told Castile not to reach for his gun, and a reasonable person who’s just been ordered to hand over his license but not touch his gun would think it was okay to grab his wallet. I can almost guarantee when Castile said “I’m not reaching for it,” he really wasn’t and was simply reaching for his license.
On any stop, it is not the driver’s job to figure out what we mean, it’s our job to give clear, easily-understandable instructions. Yanez didn’t do that.
4) Location of the gun.
Yanez said Castile reached between his right leg and the console. That’s not where the gun was. Two police officers said they saw the gun hanging out of Castile’s right pocket when he was loaded onto a gurney, one paramedic said he saw it slide out of Castile’s right pocket onto the street, and another said he saw an officer reach into Castile’s right pocket and recover it; whatever the exact circumstances of the gun’s recovery, everyone agrees the gun was in his right pocket.
Yanez said at one point that he saw the gun’s barrel, then said he misspoke and saw the gun’s slide, but at the scene he told a supervisor he never saw the gun and Castile never told him where it was. Since we know the gun was in Castile’s pocket after he was shot, should we believe Castile drew it far enough for Yanez to see the slide, then in the few seconds between being shot and losing consciousness put it back in far enough that it didn’t come out until he was pulled from the car and laid on the street?
Besides that, I’ve pocket carried quite a bit. One of the drawbacks of pocket carry is that it’s hard as hell to draw when seated. Maybe it’s easier if you’re wearing really baggy shorts, and maybe Castile was wearing baggy shorts. But in my experience, drawing from your right pocket while seated in a car requires you to lift your hips and rotate them left to get your pocket clear of the seat belt. Nothing on the video or in anyone’s testimony suggests Castile raised or rotated his hips to get access to his weapon.
5) “I was scared because I smelled marijuana.” Gimme a f**king break.
Yanez said this about the odor of marijuana that was present in the car. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard a cop claim:
“As that was happening as [Castile] was pulling at, out his hand I thought, I was gonna die and I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girl was screaming.”
Marijuana doesn’t make people homicidally violent, and tends to produce the exact opposite effect. If Yanez had walked up and seen the dark glass vials associated with PCP or smelled the strong chemical scent of meth, yes I can see why he’d tense up. I would too. A smell of marijuana might mean you’re about to have a fight on your hands because the driver doesn’t want to go to jail, but it doesn’t mean someone high on marijuana is somehow more dangerous.
I’ve never seen or heard of any studies indicating marijuana makes people violent, and my experience on the street from just about day one led me to believe drunks are way more violent than potheads. All else being equal I’d prefer to deal with a pothead over a drunk any day of the week, and I suspect most cops with street experience feel the same way. I’ve walked up on numerous cars that reeked of marijuana, and personally can’t remember ever getting scared of the driver’s “audacity.” Someone exposing a child to secondhand pot smoke shouldn’t equal “This guy is about to kill me.”
Recently I worked a large public event where cops and families were present, and some people in the crowd were smoking marijuana. Those people had the audacity to smoke around cops and children, but none of them went crazy and started murdering people. Yanez’s statement about how dangerous Castile was because he was smoking marijuana (at some point, we don’t know exactly when) is so incredibly stupid I almost can’t believe he said it.
I strongly suspect Yanez made that statement solely as justification for the shooting, and doesn’t really believe it. His attorney argued that Castile was high and therefore couldn’t follow directions, but I call shenanigans on both those claims. Pot doesn’t make you a homicidal maniac and Castile was following directions, as I explained earlier.
Put all that together:
A calm peaceful driver legally carrying a pistol who didn’t do anything violent or dangerous politely told an officer he was armed and followed the officer’s instructions to get his wallet but was then shot because the officer thought he was reaching for a gun in a place where the gun actually wasn’t because the officer smelled marijuana and thought it meant the driver was homicidally dangerous. Does that make sense to anyone?
Does it make sense that Yanez would fire seven times at almost contact range and miss twice, putting one round sixteen inches away from the little girl he thought he had to protect from secondhand pot smoke?
Am I missing something here?
Yanez’s acquittal wasn’t a victory for law enforcement, it was a defeat. It was a message that cops can be expected to panic over nothing, to shoot upon the slightest provocation, and get a pass if they make the most ridiculous, flimsiest excuses for being “in fear.” It was a message to the public to expect less, not more, courage, dedication and bravery from cops. The not guilty verdict wasn’t something to cheer, and I can’t understand the pro-LE web sites saying it proves the shooting was justified or complaining about Yanez being fired.
Those who protest that Castile’s girlfriend lied about officers not providing first aid or showed callousness by live-streaming instead of helping him are off the mark. Her actions afterward aren’t the issue. What matters here are Castile’s and Yanez’s actions from the first contact until the last shot was fired. As far as I can tell Castile did literally nothing wrong, but Yanez panicked over nothing and killed an innocent man. For the record, I think Yanez honestly believed he was in danger. I think he honestly panicked. That doesn’t mean he was right to believe he was in danger, and it doesn’t make his panic understandable. Cops are trained, expected and paid to operate at a higher standard than irrational panic. We owe it to the public to hold ourselves to that higher standard.
If you’re a cop you may want to take a hard look at this shooting, understand why so many people are understandably angry about it, and work at both the policy and personal levels to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Philando Castile, Rest In Peace.
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!
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About the Author: Chris Hernandez, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.