Thirty years after Rodney King, videos documenting police misconduct and mistakes have become ubiquitous.
Thanks to a smartphone, the cop who killed Walter Scott is serving time, but not enough. Jason Van Dyke is in prison and Rahm Emanuel isn't in politics, efforts to hide footage having failed. The officer who shot John Crawford III didn't get punished while the department paid a $1.7 million settlement to the family – we can watch and decide for ourselves whether justice was done. Absent video, we extrapolate and argue. Did Michael Brown have it coming? Should George Zimmerman be in jail?
It's hard to keep track of all the names, though a pattern is plain: The dead and wounded are disproportionately minorities. I write pending verdict in the Chauvin trial – Pritzker has deployed the National Guard to Chicago.
Every case is different.
As much as that split second in the alley, it was the minutes afterward, watching Adam Toledo's unseeing eyes stare while his killer administers CPR. Relieved by other officers, Eric Stillman walks away, then sits on the ground, thinking thoughts no one but he ever will know. Someone asks if he needs water. Stillman doesn't respond. You hear what sounds like stifled sobs.
The mayor of Chicago says that cops need a foot pursuit policy because chasing criminals is risky; criminologists can't agree on whether police did right or wrong. Some politicians saw a murderer, others a cop who can't be faulted. House Speaker Chris Welch blamed the system; Gov. JB Pritzker called for accountability and justice without saying what accountability and justice might be in a case like this. "The State of Illinois is committed to this work whether it is transforming our justice system or investing in communities to create durable and long-term progress," the governor said in a written statement.
Police are killing too many people, declared Rep. Lakesia Collins, D-Chicago, and she isn't wrong. "We have to put an end to it," she said. "It starts right here in our legislature." While Mayor Lori Lightfoot urged peace, Chicago Ald. Jeanette Taylor said no. "You did not have to shoot that kid," she told the Chicago Tribune. "And then y'all got the nerve to ask us for peace. When do Black and brown people get peace? When do I get to wake up and not worry about if my sons are next, or my daughters. When?" Then there is Chicago Ald. George Cardenas, who represents the ward where Toledo died. "It's a tragedy that it happened," he told the Tribune. "But, based on all the frames of the video I saw, I can't fault anybody."
The media was confused as anybody, with the Chicago Sun-Times not printing Stillman's name. "The Sun-Times isn't naming him because he isn't officially accused of wrongdoing," explained a paper that should know better. When a cop kills someone, justifiably or otherwise, a life has been taken in the public's name, and so names should be named, no matter what. These aren't private actions.
This is the sort of thing that happens when something happens that doesn't fit the script. Cops shouldn't shoot unarmed people, Toledo had dropped the gun and so Stillman should be fired and prosecuted: Just watch the video.
Stillman knew that Toledo had been armed but almost certainly could not have seen him toss the gun. He had a millisecond as Toledo turned and began raising his hands. If only he'd turned more slowly. If only he'd raised empty hands before starting to turn. If only he'd dropped the gun on the other side of the fence. If only he hadn't been in that alley, pistol in hand, running from police responding to a shots-fired call in a city plagued by homicides and awash in guns.
If only. Thanks to video, we know that Stillman made the wrong call. But it's not easy what to make of his mistake, even though we saw the whole thing.
Two days after Toledo died, Officer Rusten Sheskey returned to duty at the Kenosha Police Department in Wisconsin, seven months after shooting Jacob Blake in the back seven times, leaving him paralyzed and prompting protests that included a strike by NBA players. We saw it all yet can't agree. Blake, who had a knife, leaned into a car with children inside while officers, guns drawn, ordered him to stop – he'd retrieved the blade after dropping it while being Tased by officers who'd scuffled with him before using deadly force. "I shouldn't have picked up the knife," he told ABC News in January. "At the time, I wasn't thinking clearly."
Blake and Toledo, a boy too young to know better, ventured onto dangerous limbs, and police aren't perfect. Anyone who's heard a cop fight tears after killing an unarmed seventh grader knows that. We grieve and we accuse and we conflate and we argue while we wait for the next.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.