Thoughts on Excessive Force and Stand Your Ground

By: Cassandra Cronin

My family posing for a photo with hoodies, which was a trend created to stand in solidarity with Treyvon Martin’s family after his death in 2014. Treyvon Martin was a 17 year old boy who was racially profiled, deemed dangerous, and murdered by George Zimmerman because he was simply wearing a hoodie.

Our discussion with Kelly McMillin concerning Graham v Connor and the stand your ground laws were the most interesting topics we covered that evening. It was especially interesting to me because of where I’m from. Georgia is an incredibly conservative, pro-gun, and pro-stand your ground state. I grew up knowing people who owned guns for self-defense, or used them on hunting trips. At the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking of the cases where Graham v Connor and stand your ground failed to protect people of color such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin, and Marissa Alexander.

In many cases, it is difficult to prove an excessive use of force beyond a reasonable doubt as defined by Graham v Connor. The case determines that, for police officers, excessive force is justified based on three main factors: the severity of the suspect’s crime, the level of threat the suspect poses on the safety of others, and whether or not the suspect is resisting or evading arrest. These factors are much too vague as they leave a lot space for subjective interpretation and abuses of power.

Sometimes the law tries to get it right. Police officer Nouman Raja was convicted in Florida for the murder of Corey Jones in 2015 (a black housing inspector and musician who was killed by officer Raja while waiting for roadside assistance). In the Eric Garner case, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado recently recommended that Daniel Pantaleo (the officer that put Garner in a chokehold) be fired for his involvement in the case. Unfortunately, there are many more cases where the law fails to hold police officers accountable for using excessive force. In the case of Michael Brown, the Ferguson Police Department worked hard to cast doubt and uncertainty on the situation. Specifically, the police department sabotaged evidence by sending the gun used by Darren Wilson, the officer who killed the 18 year old, for DNA evidence rather than fingerprint tests. This made it impossible to gather evidence to determine whether Brown reached into Wilson’s car to try to grab the gun. Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing in 2015. Other police officers responsible for the deaths of Philando Castile, Freddy Grey, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling have avoided charges altogether or failed to be convicted of any crime.

I have conflicting feelings towards stand your ground laws. I understand that some people own guns to protect themselves and their family, and then expect the law to protect them if they injure or kill someone in self-defense. At the same time, stand your ground laws have allowed for racialized extrajudicial killings like in the cases of Treyvon Martin and Elijah Al-Amin. There are also many cases that put into question the uneven application of these laws along racial lines. Marissa Alexander, a black woman in Florida who fired a warning shot at her husband in self-defense, was denied to be considered under stand your ground and sentenced 20 years for aggravated assault.

A lot still needs to be done concerning excessive force and civilian abuses of self-defense laws, and it’s hard not to be left frustrated by the bleak possibility for change.

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