On Saturday night in Dallas, Texas, high school freshman Jordan Edwards was killed when police shot him in the head with a rifle. According to news reports, Edwards was in the passenger seat of a car with four other teen boys, leaving a party, when police opened fire on the car. Initially, the police said that they fired because the car was reversing toward them in an “aggressive manner.” But on Monday, after reviewing the video of what happened—quite notably—Balch Springs Police Chief Jonathan Haber retracted that statement and acknowledged that, in fact, the car was driving away from the police. Reflecting on the situation, Haber expressed, “I don’t believe that (the shooting) met our core values.”
The hearts of the staff here at the Innocence Project are with the Edwards family, as well as with the young friends and the community who are mourning Jordan Edwards. We are deeply saddened by the loss of this young life. And we are moved to ask how many more people will suffer from this type of needless violence?
Our nation’s Constitution promises that everyone will be treated fairly and equally. But for far too long, black Americans have not been afforded the fair and equal treatment they deserve. For several years now we’ve watched a growing number of videos that capture the atrocious violence that a disproportionate number of black people suffer at the hands of the police. But, look anywhere along the criminal justice continuum; it doesn’t take long to see how racial disparity unfairly tilts the system.
This is a deeply complex issue with no easy answers. We fully acknowledge and honor the fact that men and women in law enforcement put their lives on the line daily to protect our safety. Nevertheless, the unjustified violence by police against black people is unconscionable. It has a very real and profoundly troubling effect on those of us who work to protect the innocent men and women trapped in our deeply flawed criminal justice system. We at the Innocence Project see these horrific instances of policing gone terribly wrong as an innocence issue and feel compelled to lend our voice to this critically important conversation.
While the Innocence Project’s work focuses on freeing those who were wrongly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, we’ve learned that these injustices often start at the earliest stages of police investigation and reflect the same bias and racism—implicit and certainly explicit—that we see at other points in the criminal justice system. The 349 wrongful conviction cases overturned through DNA evidence prove that, overwhelmingly, black people were more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted—even when facts and evidence proved they were innocent. The underlying problem of racism is systemic and deeply rooted.
In truth, racial disparity undermines every American institution; our nation’s history has made it so. Whether it is through housing, education or employment, our country’s institutions make black Americans vulnerable to unequal and unjust treatment. In the case of our criminal justice system, where the stakes—life and liberty—couldn’t be higher, we see the worst of this.
As reported in the Washington Post, blacks are two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be shot by the police; unarmed black Americans are five times more likely than unarmed whites to be shot and killed by the police. In fact, black men accounted for 40 percent of all of the unarmed people shot and killed by the police in 2015 —that’s even though black men make up only six percent of the population in the United States.
And according to a study released in April 2016 by researchers from the University of Louisville and the University of South Carolina, which examined the 990 fatal police shootings that took place in 2015, the only significant indicator that could predict whether or not someone unarmed would be shot and killed by the police was whether the person was black. The authors wrote that their analysis of the statistics “suggests [that] the police exhibit shooter bias by falsely perceiving blacks to be a greater threat than non-blacks to their safety.”
We understand there will be rare occasions when police officers are justified in using deadly force; it is a critical part of their job and a grave responsibility. But as these statistics make clear, a real crisis exists. We must stop explicit bias and guard against the implicit bias that has all too often ended in the death of black people.
The problem isn’t hopeless if people of good will work together to solve it. Cognitive science has provided us with a much better understanding of bias and how people make race-based decisions without even realizing it. This knowledge can help fashion meaningful solutions.
At the Innocence Project, we’ve both learned from and leveraged research and science to develop practices and policies that exonerate innocent people from prison and help prevent wrongful convictions. While we don’t pretend to have the answers, we believe that practical and effective steps can and must be taken to put an end to the unnecessary use of deadly force by police.
The Innocence Project is committed to working with researchers, everyone in communities committed to justice, law enforcement and lawmakers to prevent these senseless deaths. We must work with the police to cultivate a new culture that sometimes includes punishment of individual officers but also addresses the deeply rooted biases that result in needless loss of life. Failure within the criminal justice system is not rare nor does it occur in a vacuum; it’s a product of the culture and environment and that’s where the change needs to start.
Barry Scheck, Co-Founder
Peter Neufeld, Co-Founder
Madeline deLone, Executive Director