WASHINGTON — Three deadly police shootings of black people. Three sets of facts. Three potentially different outcomes.
On the same day a white former patrolman in South Carolina pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges for killing a motorist, word came down that the U.S. Justice Department would not prosecute two white officers in the shooting death of a man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And a white suburban Dallas officer was fired after fatally shooting a 15-year-old boy as the car he was riding in was driving away.
Civil rights activists are watching closely for clues to how the Trump administration’s Justice Department intends to handle racially charged shootings by police. But drawing any conclusions about the department from those cases is risky, in part because each one is different and because prosecutions of officers are difficult and rare no matter the administration.
And while Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he believes sweeping federal investigations of police departments can hurt officer morale and undermine crime-fighting, he has also promised his Justice Department will prosecute individual officers who break the law.
“I don’t really think you can read that much into it,” said Jonathan Smith, a civil rights attorney in the Obama Justice Department, noting that in two of the cases, the investigations began before Sessions took office.
Here’s a look at each case and how communities are responding.
Officer Michael Slager shot Scott five times in the back as the unarmed 50-year-old man ran away during a traffic stop, and cellphone video of the 2015 shooting was viewed millions of times around the world.
Slager pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating Scott’s civil rights by shooting without justification. He could go to prison for decades. The charges were brought a year ago, during the Obama administration.
Scott’s mother said the admission of guilt was all she needed to move on.
But the Scott case was unusual. For one, prosecutors had video that clearly showed that Scott was running from Slager and was at least 17 feet away when he was shot. That contradicted an account the officer gave investigators before the video surfaced. In pleading guilty, Slager dropped his claim that he feared for his life.
The community has been uneasy, but there hasn’t been the widespread unrest other cities have seen.
Ashley Williams, an organizer with Charlotte Uprising in North Carolina who has staged a number of actions around killings of black people by police, was unsatisfied with Slager’s guilty plea, since he neither admitted to nor was convicted of murdering Scott.
“What’s happening right now, especially this week, is representative of the failures in the system we’re told to rely on,” Williams said.
The Justice Department declined to charge two Baton Rouge officers with civil rights violations in the death of Sterling, who was shot during a struggle on the pavement outside a convenience store in July. Prosecutors said they could not prove the officers acted unreasonably.
According to the Justice Department, the officers said they saw the butt of a gun in one of Sterling’s pants pockets and saw him try to reach for it before he was shot. A loaded gun was recovered from the 37-year-old man’s pocket, prosecutors said.
Authorities in such cases must meet a difficult standard of proof, a challenge that has complicated prosecutions in past police shootings.
“It is not enough to show that the officer made a mistake, acted negligently, acted by accident or mistake, or even exercised bad judgment,” the department said.
Myra Richardson, an organizer with The Wave, a youth-led activist group in Baton Rouge, said Sterling’s case is “representative of the longstanding history of violence that is sanctioned by the state and mistrust in the police.” Richardson said organizers will continue to work on behalf of Sterling’s family and in the broader fight to end killings of blacks by police.
It’s unclear whether the Justice Department will investigate the shooting of the 15-year-old on Saturday. He was killed by a Texas officer investigating an underage drinking complaint at a house party the high school freshman was leaving. The boy’s family has not called for federal intervention.
The officer, Roy Oliver, was fired Tuesday for violating departmental policy. Police said video showed that the car Jordan was in was moving away from police, not going toward them in reverse, as the Balch Springs Police Department originally claimed.
Rashad Robinson, executive director of the online racial justice organization Color of Change, is calling for an investigation but is not yet pushing for federal intervention.
“Most of the time, we are calling for federal intervention when the state can’t actually do it,” Robinson said. “It is not because we think that federal intervention is the only way. It is because local officials have refused to hold individuals accountable. We want independent, clear investigations.”