A jury in Texas has found a police officer Roy Oliver guilty for the murder of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year old unarmed black youth, while he was a passenger in car driving by. The story was a familiar one in which the officer argued that the boy and his friends had been acting aggressively towards his partner and that he had been forced to fire at them in defense. But the body cam videos showed a very different story, that the car had been moving away.
On the night of April 29, 2017, Oliver fired an MC5 rifle into a Chevrolet Impala carrying Jordan and two of his brothers as it pulled away from a high school house party. Jordan, who was struck in the head, died later at a hospital.
Police initially said the vehicle had backed up toward Oliver “in an aggressive manner,” but body camera video showed the car was moving away from him and his partner. Days after the shooting, Oliver, who had served in the department for six years, was fired.
Oliver, 38, has said he feared for his life and his partner’s safety.
“I had to make a decision. This car is about to hit my partner,” Oliver testified in the trial. “I had no other option.”
After a weeklong trial, it took the jury one day to reach a verdict.
For all the problems associated with body cams, it is often the only chance that victims of policy brutality have to prove their case, other than videos taken by bystanders who happen to be there. The police version of events is always taken as presumptively true and they always say that the victim was aggressive and they acted in self-defense.
In his memoir Reporter Seymour Hersh describes an event that occurred when he was just starting out in his career, an episode which he recalls in shame because of the self-censorship practiced by him and the paper he worked for.
I was back on overnight duty at the central police headquarters when two cops called in to report that a robbery suspect had been shot trying to avoid arrest. The cops who had done the shooting were driving in to make a report. Always ambitious, and always curious, I raced down to the basement parking lot in the hope of getting some firsthand quotes before calling in the story. The driver – white, beefy, and very Irish, like far too many Chicago cops then – obviously did not see me as he parked the car. As he climbed out, a fellow cop, who clearly had heard the same radio report I had, shouted something like “So the guy tried to run on you?” The driver said, “Naw, I told the n***** to beat it and then plugged him.”
I got the hell out of there, without being seen, called the bureau, and asked for the editor on duty. (It was not Billings.) What to do? The editor urged me to do nothing. It would be my word versus that of all the cops involved, and all would accuse me of lying. The message was clear: I did not have a story. But of course I did. So I waited a few days and then asked for and got a copy of the coroner’s report. The victim had been shot in the back. I took a copy of the report to an editor. He wasn’t interested. No one was interested. I had no proof that a felony murder had been committed other than what the killer himself had said, and he, of course, would deny it.
So I left the story alone. I did not try to find and interview the cop who bragged about doing the shooting, nor did I seek out his partner. Nor did I raise hell at City News. I shuffled off to six months of army training, full of despair ay my weakness and the weakness of a profession that dealt so easily with compromise and self-censorship. I’ve hated both practices ever since while more that once having gone along with looking the other way. I had found my calling and learned, very quickly, that it wasn’t perfect. Neither was I. (p. 22)
If the presumption of police truthfulness is so great that a first-hand account of what happened by a white newspaper reporter with no personal involvement in the case would not be believed, what are the chances that young black men, especially if they are not rich, would be believed?
The culture of police immunity in this country is deeply ingrained and buttressed by a long history of deep racism and there needs to be automatic independent investigations of any deaths at the hands of police.
John Fullinwider, a longtime Dallas activist and co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, said Oliver’s conviction came as a surprise.
“I expected to see an angel fly over City Hall before I saw this murder conviction,” he said. “This is a victory, but we really need independent federal prosecutors in all fatal police shootings.”
Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who represents the Edwards family, said the conviction was justice for the country.
“We’ve seen time and time again, no charges, let alone convictions, in these high-profile shootings,” he said. “It is my hope that this is a turning point in the fight against police brutality against blacks.”
That is why cases like Jordan Edwards’ are so important.