Former Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Philando Castile, relied on use of force expert testimony to justify to jurors his decision to use fatal force during the incident.
The case, which gained national attention as another divisive police shooting, will conclude without a successful prosecution, and serves as another example of the use of police force experts in criminal trials of officers accused of using excessive violence when apprehending suspects.
Minnesota Officer Acquitted in Philando Castile Shooting
On July 6, 2016 school cafeteria supervisor Philando Castile was shot to death by Minnesota police during a routine traffic stop, sparking outrage across the country over police use of force tactics. Following an investigation into the shooting, Officer Yanez, who fired the fatal shots, was arrested and charged with manslaughter for Castile’s death.
Prosecutors presented video evidence, which has since been released to the public, testimony from Castile’s girlfriend who was in the car next to him, and physical evidence to argue that Officer Yanez’s use of deadly force was unreasonable. According to the evidence, Castile informed Yanez that he had a legally-owned gun in the car with him, which caused the officer to draw his weapon and approach the car.
During a brief and confusing sequence, during which it appears Yanez commands, “Don’t pull it out” in reference to Castile’s weapon, Officer Yanez opened fire and killed Castile in front of his girlfriend.
Following the shooting incident, Officer Yanez was relieved from duty and formally charged with manslaughter for his role in the fatal incident. Prosecutors argued that officer Yanez used unreasonable and excessive force during the traffic stop, making the shooting illegal and not in the line of duty.
Defense attorneys for Yanez responded that Castile’s admission that he had a gun combined with rapid movements during a night-time traffic stop gave the officer reason to believe that his life was in danger, which justified the police shooting. In an effort to bolster the argument, defense attorneys called a use of force expert witness.
Police Use of Force Experts Key in Castile Shooting Defense
In an effort to demonstrate that Officer Yanez acted reasonably in firing fatal shots at Philando Castile, defense attorneys called a use of force expert witness who told jurors that police officers in the situation Yanez found himself in are trained to react with force when a suspect may be reaching for a weapon.
Emanuel Kapelsohn, a police training expert witness, took the stand during the defense portion of the trial to tell jurors that Yanez acted appropriately because he had reason to believe that Castile was reaching for a weapon. Kapelsohn told jurors that it takes less time for a suspect to reach for a gun than it typically does officers to process a weapon and react, meaning that police who suspect a gun may be in danger if they wait to see it.
To emphasize his point, Kapelsohn conducted a demonstration in the courtroom during which he placed a replica of Castile’s handgun into a pocket in a pair of shorts identical to the ones Castile was wearing on the night of the shooting. The gun protruded from the short pockets, which, as Kapelsohn pointed out, allowed easy access.
Kapelsohn recorded the time it took him to remove the gun from the shorts, and showed jurors that it takes only about one-third of a second for the weapon to become a threat — less than the roughly half a second it takes for officers to respond to a threat. Kapelsohn concluded that police officers, while not perfect, are trained to respond to the presence of weapons with deadly force in order to ensure their own safety.
Use of Force Experts Matter in Police Shooting Cases
The value of Kapelsohn’s use of force testimony underscores the importance of use of force expert witnesses during police shooting trials. Although the issue sparks debates which touch on a variety of racial, social, and economic issues, the ultimate question before jurors is whether or not an officer who engaged in a police shooting acted reasonably considering the circumstances he or she was in at the time.
A use of force expert witness for the defense will often present information to the jurors about police training in weapon and threat identification, and help defense attorneys argue that an officer acted reasonably considering his or her perception of threat.