Wisconsin’s self-defense law, as well as the actions of a white Milwaukee police officer, Thomas Gaffney, played a role in securing the acquittal of Colten Boushie in the case of the young man’s death.
Friday’s verdict of acquittal for Boushie, an Indigenous man from Saskatchewan, in the death of a loved one was met with chants of “No justice, no peace” by many of the community members. However, the acquittal in this case is nothing new. These days, the news of an alleged “suspect” being shot by police generates headlines and protests. But, in 2010, the acquittal of Walter Scott in the shooting death of Scott was made in a similar manner.
The acquittal was received by those seeing the case as the action of a trained officer, not an out of control citizen. The narrative that served to exonerate Gaffney was that he acted properly, and on behalf of his fellow officers, when he shot Boushie, in order to keep his fellow officers safe.
The “no excuse” view of self-defense laws as being only intended to protect white men and other citizens of a police state is, unfortunately, as true as ever. State wide, people of color in America are most likely to face charges related to the use of force.
According to a 2015 report by Amnesty International, 10 out of 12 states have passed laws which increase the conviction rate for a use of force committed by a police officer. The study found a nine point increase in conviction rates following the adoption of a law which strengthened penalties for the use of force by officers.
Aside from the six states where citizens carry guns in a concealed fashion, all other states have laws which grant officers the right to use deadly force if they feel a threat.
The State of Wisconsin, which had the highest percentage of police killed by civilians for the month of October, recently amended its controversial self-defense law, with which Boushie was attempting to defend himself. It amended its statute to make the case of self-defense based on force of a “law enforcement officer or private person,” void.
Instead, any situation the defense chooses can now be considered an assault. This change is a glaring example of how the public perception of self-defense is shifting as a result of the news.
The new self-defense statute speaks to a popular sentiment amongst many Americans, that the people are more loyal to their right to live, rather than to their individual belief system of right or wrong. In defense of the public, law enforcement is now, to some, merely an extension of the duty to protect and serve.
The public often fail to account for the underlying reasons behind the use of force by law enforcement officers. Use of force cases cannot be compared to cases of abuse and death. However, an officer’s decision to open fire should not be taken lightly.
The tenacious legal community of Walker’s Wisconsin now contests that Boushie’s case should not have been a self-defense case. However, it’s important to know the nuances of the case.
In his narrative, Gaffney, like the majority of other officers today, could be viewed as a law enforcement official. He is a “law enforcement officer” if he was asked to serve, protect and serve — just as Mr. Boushie tried to do that same duty for the officer.
How will Gaffney’s actions have an impact on future use of force cases? Hopefully, he will not be the proverbial straw which causes the public to break loose of its belief that self-defense laws are only employed by police officers of color. If so, the community needs to rethink its entire approach to violent encounters between law enforcement and the citizens.
Lance Swecker is the communications director for law enforcement watchdog organization, The Washington Post Foundation. He is on a leave of absence to stay on the case of Colten Boushie.