Some of you may have seen the recently released dashboard camera video of the Philando Castile shooting. I’m not sure I’d recommend it. It is, after all, the video of someone being killed.
When I saw that video, I was afraid. I heard the instructions the officer gave. I heard Castile’s responses. He said, “I wasn’t reaching.” The last thing he said, after being shot, was an attempt to explain to the officer that he was following instructions. And I saw myself in every action Castile took.
The officer gave him two instructions. The first was to get out his identification and then after being made aware of the legally possessed firearm, not to take out the gun. Castile, from what we can see in the video, claimed to be complying, reaching for his identification, while reassuring the officer he wasn’t getting his gun. The officer, on the other hand, seemed to think “don’t reach for your gun” was an order to also stop getting the identification.
If I was Philando Castile, I would not have interpreted it that way.
It just wouldn’t have occurred to me. A traffic stop is a high-pressure situation even without a gun involved, and you’re just trying to make sure things don’t escalate. After seeing that video, the one thought I had in my head was “If that had been me, I’d have done the same thing, and I’d be dead too.”
And the officer was found “not guilty.” Because a reasonable officer in his situation would also be afraid, and being reasonably afraid is a justification to use lethal force.
There are very few crimes that we punish with death in the U.S. Typically murder, and then, only when proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But we also punish “frightening a reasonable police officer” with death. And we instruct juries that the officer was trained to do this, and that as long as the jury agrees a reasonable police officer could be afraid in that situation, they did the right thing and did not commit a crime.
So what does that mean for me? I’m autistic. My body language isn’t right. I might come off as on drugs, or trying to hide something, or just challenging their authority. I take instructions literally. I’ve already had back-up called on me once for an expired license place, because “please step away from your car” was performed literally, which meant I stepped nearer the officer. If I tell an officer that I’m autistic, and they assume a common misconception that it means I’m more dangerous, does that make it more reasonable for them to be frightened?
After this, I’m afraid of revealing my autism to a police officer, should I be pulled over. I’m afraid of not revealing it as well, because I know I don’t present as entirely typical.
“Reasonable fear” shouldn’t be a justification for killing someone, in my mind. Police officers are there to protect us. If they’re afraid, they can quit the job. I can’t quit being autistic. I can’t quit being pulled over if I match a description. They have every right to defend their own life, but at the very least I think the hurdle should be more than “any officer would be afraid in that situation.” That makes the standard lower the more poorly trained officers are — the easier they are to spook, the more legally sound acting on that fear becomes.
An officer should not be justified in killing me because he feels uncomfortable with my presence and because I follow the orders he gives, rather than the orders he thought he gave.
I could quote you numbers about police shootings, and try to show you the data, and you and I might interpret it differently. But that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to tell you how that video made me feel.
After that video, I’m afraid. Because I can so easily imagine it happening to me. And I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be afraid of our own police force. But I am.