Officer’s trial exposes fault lines over police shootings
Portsmouth, Va. — It’s a familiar story: an unarmed black male killed at the hands of a white law enforcement officer. But it didn’t take place in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, or any of the other cities most recently at the center of discussions about police use of force and race.
William Chapman II died last year in Portsmouth, Virginia, a majority-black city of 100,000 that while not in the spotlight, has been deeply ensconced in such discussions.
For many black leaders there, former Officer Stephen Rankin’s rare trial on first-degree murder charges, scheduled to start with jury selection Wednesday, will be nothing less than a referendum on a criminal justice system they say often fails to hold police accountable.
“The criminal justice system is hell-bent on favoring those in law enforcement,” said James Boyd, president of Portsmouth’s NAACP chapter. “We see these violent injustices happening time and again without any sense of accountability. This trial has implications for every citizen, but specifically for every black American in this country.”
Rankin’s attorneys argue that Chapman’s shooting was justified, and should not be judged in the context of other pending cases elsewhere in the country.
“The factual scenario is so totally different than what has happened in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and with Michael Brown (in Ferguson, Missouri),” attorney James Broccoletti said. “I don’t think it would matter if this individual were black, red, purple or orange. It was the conduct of the person that generated the response.”
Rankin shot Chapman, 18, after responding to a shoplifting call outside a Wal-Mart last year. Witnesses say a struggle ensued. Unlike in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, however, no witness cellphone video is available to shed any light on the circumstances. In Rankin’s case, the only footage is an incomplete video from his stun gun that doesn’t show the actual shooting. Rankin was fired by Portsmouth’s city manager after his indictment.
Chapman’s death marked the second time Rankin killed someone while on duty. He was cleared of any wrongdoing from the first shooting in 2011. In that case, he fired 11 times at a white burglary suspect he said charged at him with his hands reaching into his waistband.
In court documents, prosecutors allege Rankin killed Chapman “willfully, deliberately and with premeditation.” Chapman’s body was delivered to the medical examiner with handcuffs still bound behind his back, according to news reports at the time.
But some witnesses said Chapman was combative; one said he knocked away Rankin’s stun gun, according to the reports.
Sallie Chapman, the teen’s mother, told The Associated Press he did not have a confrontational nature.
“Please look past his badge,” she said of Rankin. “Please look past his uniform. And convict this man of murder.”
The trial is scheduled at a time of intense scrutiny over police officers’ use of force, and both the prosecution and defense expressed concerns about how to maintain an impartial jury. Despite those concerns, a judge ruled Tuesday that the trial would proceed.
Rankin’s attorneys said demonstrations in favor of the officer’s conviction are planned and that jurors could be influenced by them as they enter the courthouse. At the same time, Portsmouth’s prosecutor has told the judge that a heavy presence of uniformed officers supporting Rankin could have a “chilling effect” on the jury. In addition to following numerous incidents of black men dying in police custody, the trial comes in the wake of recent fatal attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
On-duty officers kill suspects about 1,000 times a year, according to Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. But only 74 have been charged since 2005, 18 of them in 2015 alone, he said. Stinson said it will be years before he can say if the increase last year is a statistical anomaly or a trend buoyed by witness cellphone videos.
Of those officers arrested, 31 were charged with murder and several, including Rankin, with first-degree murder, he said. Thus far, 24 of the cases against officers have ended in convictions and 24 have not. The rest are pending.
“Juries are very reluctant to convict an officer because they all recognize that policing is difficult and violent,” Stinson said.
The Virginian-Pilot newspaper recently reported that 37 people have died from shootings by police in the Hampton Roads region since 2010, 25 of them black. Two of the shootings led to criminal charges against the officers, one of whom is Rankin.
Recent protests over shootings by police in Louisiana and Minnesota shut down a major highway in Portsmouth, and a white city councilman responded by calling the demonstrators “thugs” on social media. That same night, however, an image of a black highway protester hugging a white police officer went viral, easing some of the tension. The councilman apologized the following day.
JaPharii Jones, a local black activist from nearby Hampton, Virginia, said the hug was “an awesome” moment. But he said a guilty verdict in the Rankin trial would be far more impactful in a region where he said “you can sneeze and you can get shot” by police.
Ed Schardein, a retired captain from Portsmouth, said the charges against Rankin do not reflect the department or the nation’s officers.
Schardein said Portsmouth’s force is well-trained and professional. And because of a relatively high crime rate, he said the officers are used to handling high-stress situations without prematurely drawing their guns.
“Conviction or no conviction, I would hope that it’s based on the facts, and not the perception that there is an issue among policing,” Schardein said.
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