Exactly 11 months ago, in July 2016, only weeks after Jeronimo Yanez and Philando Castile met in their tragic encounter in suburban St. Paul, then-President Barack Obama spoke to a shaken and agitated nation in the wake of another shattering nightmare — the shootings of six police officers in Baton Rouge, La.
In one of his finest hours, Obama advised Americans, who had only recently been through so much shock and heartache — Orlando, Dallas and so much more — to find it within themselves to “temper our words, and open our hearts” toward one another.
In the wake of the not-guilty verdict in the Yanez trial, coming as it did Friday at the end of yet another shocking, disheartening week of violence and tension in America, Obama’s sentiment seems once again to be what we need to hear.
Let us be kind and cautious toward one another and remember the power of words to aid healing or to open new wounds.
They were both young men of promise, Castile and Yanez, exemplars of a new, young, diverse American generation. The 28-year-old Mexican-American cop; the well-liked 32-year-old African-American school food service supervisor. Exactly why their interaction ended so swiftly in such horror may never be fully understood.
The jury of seven men and five women needed five days of deliberation to agree that while it seems entirely clear Yanez made a catastrophic mistake when he shot and killed Castile, he did not commit a crime. Whatever else can and will be said of the jurors’ decision, it should be acknowledged that they performed a hard duty, and evidently with the diligence and seriousness it deserved.
It’s the community’s turn now to shoulder a hard duty. Some will have to work to come to an acceptance and a measure of peaceful respect for that decision. Leaders among those who will struggle to do so need to temper their words to calm the angriest in their midst.
Others among us will need to open their hearts to find patience and understanding for just how agonizingly hard it will be for some neighbors to make peace with this outcome.
It is an irony that police officers accused of committing crimes against citizens are transformed, in that instant, into criminal defendants themselves, protected by all of the constitutional safeguards of our system. America’s prisons are too brimful to suppose that criminal convictions are unreasonably hard to achieve in this country. But it is true that in ambiguous cases, there is only one choice to make about what kind of criminal-justice system you want.
You can have a system that would satisfy you if your child were the victim of a terrible crime. Or, you can have a system that would satisfy you if that same child were wrongly accused of a terrible crime.
Our system, whenever the evidence is less than entirely clear, is designed to favor the accused — and each of us, if we’re honest, is only sometimes pleased with that fact.
Police officers, of course, have special insulation against criminal liability, for the simple reason that it is their hard duty to go in harm’s way, to engage and if necessary confront dangerous or potentially dangerous persons. Ordinary citizens have a positive legal “duty to retreat” from a threatening confrontation; cops’ duty is to go forward.
When, in the process, officers judge it necessary to use force to protect themselves or others, they get the benefit of every doubt.
One hopes, however, that the prosecution of officer Yanez, even though ending in acquittal, has demonstrated that when their mistakes are grave, cops’ actions will be scrutinized as vigorously as our system knows how.
But no argument, no civics lesson, no analysis of evidence or standards of proof will ease the pain in many minds and hearts just now. We must be patient and gentle as necessary emotions and protests are released. We have to learn all we can from this incident and investigation about how to improve policing and police-community relations.
And meanwhile, with tempered words and open hearts, we must seek to embrace this tragedy — and all of the tragedies like it, whenever innocents die, whether they are average citizens or police officers — as a common sorrow shared by the whole community.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.