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Friday, March 10, 2017

The forgotten police shooting?

The latest episode of NPR's Embedded explores the shooting of Jonathan Ferrell by a Charlotte police officer in 2013. This was the prototype for  the many "officer-involved shootings" around which Black Lives Matter has grown: Part of the encounter (not the actual shots, though) was captured on dashcam; the officer described fear of an unarmed black man impervious to weapons with "holograms" for eyes; the jury hung (8-4 in favor of acquittal, split roughly along racial lines) based on seeing different things in the video and the state did not retry; the officer resigned; and the city settled (for about $ 2.5 million).

First, the show explores the ambiguity of video evidence and the fact that different people see different things in the video. It notes the demographic correlations, but no more than that. The producers did not talk to Dan Kahan or about his studies of how people view and understand video evidence and the demographic connections. They instead let everything stand on one person's comments that "people see what they want to see," which is a simplistic way of describing a complicated process of perception and cognition that Kahan has tried to explain.

Second, Ferrell has somewhat become the forgotten police-shooting victim. In writing about police shootings and video the past few years, my paradigms are always the post-Ferguson victims--Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott. I had not thought about the Ferrell case until I heard the program.

Third, I wonder what we should make of Ferrell settling for $ 2.5 million in 2015, whereas McDonald's settled for $ 5 million and Scott's and Garner's families settled for more than $ 6. Why the difference? Has the post-Ferguson environment created a settlement premium in these cases?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 10, 2017 at 03:17 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


Contrary to its own claims & what seems to be received opinion, the Kahan et al study did not show that different people "see different things" in motion picture (or any other) kind of evidence. It showed that different people (unsurprisingly) have different interpretations of what is reasonable under the circumstances. The Scott v. Harris video was not "ambiguous." It just couldn't itself answer the question as to whether Scott's actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Because that is not a question of fact, but a question of law that we have decided to (usually) give to the jury. For further thoughts, see: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2891923

Posted by: Brian L. Frye | Mar 11, 2017 5:21:35 PM

As to the settlement premium, it may simply be the case that the most publicized cases get the biggest settlements, though it's true that post-Ferguson cases tend to have been more publicized. I suspect, though I'd just be guessing, that less famous post-Ferguson police shooting cases, of which there have been many, bring in smaller settlements, and I have a suspicion that families of white victims of police shootings (of which there've also been many) get smaller settlements too. But that's pure conjecture.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Mar 10, 2017 3:35:47 PM

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