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Wide Police Discretion In Use Of Force Led To St. Louis Officer's Aquittal

Jeff Robertson
Associated Press
Demonstrators in St. Louis on Saturday protest the acquittal of a white former police officer in the shooting death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith. The verdict rekindled tensions between police and the minority community.

The acquittal last week of a white former St. Louis police officer in the shooting death of a 24-year-old African-American suspect has its roots in a 1989 Supreme Court decision.

Illinois State University criminal justice professor Michael Gizzi said the high court ruling in Graham v. Connor set a standard that gives wide discretion to officers in the use of force.

"It's a very deferential standard to law enforcement and it requires courts to evaluate things using an objective reasonableness standard from the perspective of the officer," Gizzi said on GLT's Sound Ideas.  

The St. Louis acquittal is the latest in a string of cases from Minnesota to Oklahoma in which judges or juries have decided in favor of officers involved in shootings of civilians.

Street protests—some of them violent—broke out within minutes of Circuit Court Judge Timothy Wilson's ruling and continued in St. Louis and in the nearby suburb of University City over the weekend. 

Gizzi said said the decision by the officer's defense team to forgo a jury trial in favor of a trial before a judge proved to be a wise strategy.

"Had this gone to a jury, it's possible in the climate that exists today that the jury would have decided against him," Gizzi said.

The shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith took place just miles from where Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, sparking violent protests and opening a national conversation on police and race.

In the St. Louis incident, police said Stockley and his partner attempted to interrupt an alleged drug transaction involving Smith in a Church's Chicken parking lot.

When Smith fled in his automobile, the officers chased him for three miles at speeds reaching 80 miles per hour and crashed into Smith's car. Stockley then shot at Smith, whom he said had reached for a gun. Prosecutors claimed at trial police planted the gun after Smith was shot.

The city earlier had agreed to an $900,000 wrongful death settlement brought on behalf of Smith's young daughter.

Gizzi noted that in a taped recording of remarks the officers made in the police vehicle during the chase, Stockley is heard saying he is "going to kill" Smith, using an expletive, and adding "Don't you know it."

"What it tells me is how weak the legal standard is when the (police) defendant wins in that scenario," Gizzi said.

"It fits wholeheartedly into what I call the jurisprudence of crime control where we give all benefit of doubt to the police officer," he added.

Stockley fired seven shots at Smith. Gizzi said officers are trained to respond with fire until they believe a person is not longer posing a threat.

Broken System?

Gizzi said remarks by St. Louis protesters that the justice system is "broken" for minorities reflects the particular tensions that have enveloped St. Louis County ever since the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson revealed a system weighted against African American citizens by a majority white police force.

He said he believes police in many other cities have made community policing and better officer training in the use of force priorities.

The St. Louis protests were largely peaceful during the day, then devolved into rock-throwing and vandalism at night. A scheduled U2 concert had to be cancelled. Gizzi said violence doesn't help the protesters' cause. 

"I don't know that the cancellation of the U2 concert is going to gain support" in the wider community, he added.

Gizzi said those seeking to change the system need to gain support for reform beyond those activists who attend the street protests. Arrests, attacks on police officers, and vandalism of businesses erode that support, Gizzi said.

"In the civil rights movement, (protesters) were non-violent all the time. Violence was inflicted on them, and they used that to their advantage," Gizzi said. 

He said he thought progress had begun occurring after the 2014 Brown shooting in Ferguson and some of the other high profile incidents that followed.

"We were almost making some progress on these issues before the 2016 election," Gizzi said. "Since then everything has shifted to the broader resistance movements. There are so many things there are people complaining about."

Gizzi called for continued national dialogue on police training, use of force and community relations.

He said, however, he believes that dialogue is unlikely to occur anytime soon "given the law and order positions of the president of the United States."

A national dialogue is going to have to "come from somewhere else," Gizzi said. "And that's the fundamental challenge we are facing now."

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