See here’s the thing, it would be really easy for me to paint Officer Yanez out to be a racist killer cop, hell bent on furry with the willingness to take people’s lives without a second thought. Seriously, I could close out what has already become a significantly lengthy two-part essay, by saying just that and call it a day. Truthfully, there are probably a lot of people who would like to hear me say that and we could continue to wade through our lives pretending there aren’t any dark and foreboding clouds on the horizon. We can all just pray that the brewing tempest doesn’t come our way.
However, I don’t believe it. Nor, would I ever feel like I was being honest and giving Philando Castile, his family, and all of you the amount of respect they deserve. In fact, to do that would be accepting that the world we live in is one of perpetual cloudiness. However, I refuse to believe that.
First of all, a little brief background on me, I’m a P.O.S.T. certified law enforcement instructor, who has taught police academy and in-service law enforcement courses.
Additionally, I am a police veteran, who currently is a police manager, tasked with, amongst many things, reviewing uses of force and officer conduct at my agency,
Additionally, my educational background is in cognitive psychology, specifically in consciousness and perception. Essentially, I spend a lot of time trying to understand how and why humans think and behave the way they do. The collective of my experience and background means that I spend a lot of time considering how and why cops think and behave the way they do.
With Officer Yanez’s interaction with Philando Castile, that ultimately led to Castile being shot and killed, I’ve had to try to reconstruct the entire thought processes of two men, I’ve never met, and am limited by what information is available through various public means. That means to a large degree, I’ve to use observational and behavioral evidence to make assumptions. This even includes making assumptions about implicit thoughts, that neither man may have even been consciously aware of. The caveat I make is that as with any assumption or purely archived analysis, the conclusions reached a fallible to subject to inaccuracies based on limitations.
Now, that the prolog is out of the way, I want to make sure I say this upfront and expressly clear; in my opinion, all culpability and responsibility for the death of Philando Castile, falls squarely on Officer Yanez, and de facto law enforcement. I have seen people continue to suggest dual accountability for both Yanez and Castile. Essentially, suggesting that Castile somehow should have engaged in some other behavior to prevent his death, by doing something to alleviate Yanez’s abrupt and dramatic behavioral change from calm and relaxed to terrified and authoritative.
For those that have this opinion, I want you to consider that Castile was afforded approximately 2 seconds to have done anything to mitigate Yanez’s concerns. I’m open to listening, but someone please tell me what exactly could have been done, in two seconds to temper the situation, besides calmly saying, “I’m not grabbing my gun.” Does anyone reasonably think that rapidly throwing one’s hands up, when Yanez was already under the perception that Castile was holding a gun would have altered the outcome?
With that said, I DO believe that at the time in which Officer Yanez fired his weapon killing Castile, he was scared. He made a very literal split second decision and that decision was wrong. Most importantly, after finally getting to see the dash-cam video, I believe there is considerable evidence that Yanez was ill-prepared to deal with the rigors and the dynamic environment he faced. This was a significant influencing factor in how he responded that July evening. Additionally, I do not believe that Yanez, is alone in this condition, and a considerable amount of police officers are equally unprepared to properly process information and are limited by the number of options they have at their disposal to solve problems in front of them.
I will attempt to reconstruct the events trying to elaborate the mindsets of those involved. Some of my analysis leans on the mindsets of the modern police officer as well.
Officer Yanez’s reasoning for pulling over Castile that evening was that he resembled someone from an armed robbery four days prior. This may have been partially true, however, I would bet that Yanez was an officer who was proactive in street level interdiction, including proactively policing to locate individuals who are engaged in criminal activity. In essence, Yanez pulled over Castile because he was fishing for criminals.
One telling aspect that leads me to this conclusion is the ultimate probable cause Yanez used to pull Castile over. Yanez wasn’t being untruthful when he told Castile why he pulled him over. Yanez stated that some of the bulbs in his driver’s side brake light were not working. If you watch the dash-cam video of the stop, indeed you will see that the top half of the driver’s side brake lights are not working.
Basically, this was a PC (probable cause) stop. This relates to traffic enforcement stops, in which an officer is using whatever means available to stop a driver, with the intent to examine a driver or the occupants for crimes that aren’t at the time readily apparent. This is very consistent with officers who enjoy street level interdiction work, looking for wanted persons, or drug and weapons possession. Whereas, highway interdiction officers are looking for large-scale drug traffickers. Same principle, different expected outcomes.
Basically, the average beat cop who isn’t experienced in proactive enforcement of this nature might never have even considered the legality of not have all of the bulbs on a break light functioning. Now, the rational for why Yanez selected Castile initially as someone he wanted to investigate further can be a multitude of reasons. One of these reasons could indeed be the one he stated prior to the traffic stop, which was to identify Castile in connection with the prior armed robbery. However, it can be surmised that Yanez did not have any absolute conviction that Castile was the robbery suspect because he still sought out and found probable cause prior to making the stop in order to justify it legally.
Now, if I had to speculate, I wouldn’t put the probability that Yanez, actually thought Castile was an armed robbery suspect as being very high. The reason for this is his demeanor and mannerisms after the stop. He was not acting tactically appropriate in his approach or behavior that would be consistent with someone believing they were dealing with an armed or dangerous individual. There is more evidence to support that in Officer Kauser’s behavior. He is in no way acting like this could be an armed robbery suspect. In fact, his behavior leads me to believe this isn’t something abnormal at all for Yanez, and this is as typical as it gets. His hands tucked inside his vest carrier, and the distance he is to the vehicle is suggestive of, “Hey, I’m here to back you up if you need me, but I don’t expect anything major with this traffic stop.”
So what could be other reasons for Yanez’s desire to stop Castile? Well, all of those are merely speculation, as I don’t know anything about Yanez’s past or the agency itself. Can race be a factor? Well, yes. We would be all lying to ourselves, if we failed to acknowledge the vast amount of evidence that suggest people as a whole, not just cops, view Black males in connection with crimes at a much higher propensity than other races of individuals. This is a sociological fact that has been researched and demonstrated consistently over and over. This is an implicit bias, and doesn’t mean that Yanez, or any other cop, consciously say to themselves, “I’m gonna get me a Black guy.” Rather, it is that if trying to pick out the bad guy in a crowd, more frequently all individuals will pick a Black guy.
Can the vehicle Castile was driving that day have a factor? Absolutely. Once again, we are creatures of how we perceive stimuli in our environment. Castile was driving a 1997 Oldsmobile. Had he been driving a 2015 Camry, and not a 20-year-old Oldsmobile, this may have influenced the officer’s perception to the same degree. Again, this isn’t something exclusive to law enforcement officers. If a 1997 Oldsmobile was circling your neighborhood, you would be more likely to think they were, “up to no good.” Whereas if a 2016 BMW was circling your neighborhood, you might assume it was a real estate agent or someone who was lost.
The eventual truth is that most likely all of the above-mentioned factors were influences on why Castile was pulled over that night. If any one of them is removed from the situation, the outcomes may have been different.
Now, once Yanez, pulled Castile over and is speaking with him, he once again engages in a behavior categorical of an officer engaged in street level interdiction. The reason he squares off at the driver door, and even puts his head basically in the window, is because as he stated in testimony he smelled marijuana. Consistent with this type of law enforcement, he’s using his senses to see if he can extend the stop beyond what it initially was, and investigate other criminal acts. He shows more evidence of this, as he turns his head to gain a vantage point of what is inside the glove compartment when Castile reaches over to get his insurance card. Yanez is both ensuring he’s not grabbing a weapon and looking for anything in the compartment that may be in plain view. Moreover, if you look he actually takes this same to look down in between the driver’s door and driver’s seat.
When things turn for the worst:
Now, at this point, the stop is very routine for both men, Yanez and Castile. Court records indicate that Castile had been pulled over 52 times before July 6th. That’s absolutely mind-blowing to me! Either Castile was the worst driver in history, or there are other factors at play here.
Either way, Castile who is armed at the time, is a lawful licensed gun owner. Consistent with what is recommended to all lawful gun owners, Castile tells Yanez he’s armed.
THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ACTIONS HAPPEN AT THIS MOMENT.
At the time, Castile tells Yanez he’s armed, the officer is looking at the insurance card. His eyes are not on Castile. When Castile says, “Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me” Yanez, diverts his attention to Castile and leans in a little bit to hear him.
BASED ON THE VIDEOS AND STATEMENTS THIS IS MY OPINION OF WHAT HAPPENED NEXT:
When Yanez, looked up from the insurance card the moment Castile said he was armed, the officer did exactly what all police are trained to do, he quickly tried to locate Castile’s hands. If someone is going to hurt you, they are going to do it with their hands, so you always locate the hands.
When Yanez, located Castile’s hands, it was at that moment Castile was engaged in unbuckling his seatbelt to get out his wallet and give the officer his license, just as he had been told to do. The evidence to support this was what Castile was doing, is based on the fact that from the Facebook Live video recorded by Castile’s girlfriend, Castile still has his seatbelt on. Additionally, the position of both hands are on the right side of this body, and his body is slumped towards the right, as that is the direction his momentum was going at the time of the shooting. Furthermore, from the Facebook video, it appears that Castile has one bullet would on his upper triceps area on his left arm. This would be consistent with the fact that Castile’s left arm was reaching across his body to unbuckle his seatbelt.
WHAT OFFICER YANEZ SAW:
When Officer Yanez, located Castile’s hands and he saw them engaged in the act of unbuckling his seatbelt. However, that isn’t what Yanez actually saw, at least not in his mind. In Yanez’s statement, he said, “he put his hand around something. And his hand made like a C-type shape and it appeared to me that he was wrapping something around his fingers and almost like if I were to put my hand around my gun.”
Now, imagine for a moment what it looks like when someone takes their seatbelt off.
Now, think about what it looks like when someone takes a gun out of a holster. Especially, someone who has some firearms training. Because, as Yanez said, “Like if I were to put my hand around my gun.”
By the positioning of the hands, and the entire body movements the act of taking a seatbelt off is fundamentally the exact same processes as taking a firearm out of a right-handed holster. Now, compound the fact that Yanez, was primed by the fact that prior to Castile saying he had a firearm, his attention was not on Castile. Therefore, when he did divert his attention back to Castile, the only thing he perceived was, “I have a firearm.” He never even observed or perceived the fact that Castile previously was engaged in the act of taking his seatbelt off.
At this point, Officer Yanez, fell victim to something called, Inattentional or perceptual blindness. This relates to when individuals fail to perceive an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight. There are an overwhelming number of studies that support inattentional blindness and indeed human beings can miss significant clues in their environment, simply because we don’t assume them to be there and therefore. Our perception is our reality and therefore, if we do not perceive something to be there, we may literally fail to see it.
WHAT PHILANDO CASTILE THOUGHT:
Now, when Officer Yanez said to Philando Castile, “Don’t grab for it [the gun].” He answered twice he wasn’t going too. Which was 100% true. What happens at this point was a failed marriage between Yanez’s perceptions and Castile’s perception. Yanez thinks that Castile’s act of unbuckling his seatbelt is actually him grabbing a gun. Which is EXACTLY, why Yanez says, "Don't Pull it out." (Twice).
Whereas, Castile knows he’s unbuckling his seatbelt and therefore, he fails to understand the levity of the concern in Yanez’s perception. To Castile at this point, his assurance should be sufficient in supporting he isn’t going to grab his firearm. He has no reason to suspect that Yanez would perceive him unbuckling his seatbelt would look like he was grabbing a gun. This is why Castile doesn’t remove his hand from his seatbelt. In fact, Castile is most likely, actually trying to undo his seatbelt and get his wallet to give the officer his ID as quickly as possible, as to demonstrate exactly what he is doing. Castile is probably unnerved by the officer’s sudden demeanor change and doesn’t understand why it has come about.
When faced with a decision, Officer Yanez goes with his perception of Castile grabbing a gun, even though by his own admissions he never saw a firearm, he only saw Castile’s hand on “something” grabbing it in a manner consistent with a firearm. What occurs next, is Yanez reacts under his perceived assumption and withdraws and fires his weapon at Castile. This reaction was under incorrect pretentious and the results are catastrophic. Philando Castile loses his life, because of an incorrect perception on the part of Officer Yanez.
Now, it might be easy for some people at this point to absolve Officer Yanez with any culpability of the outcome of this actions because it can be surmised how his perceptions made him believe he was in danger. However, I do not absolve Yanez of not being accountable for killing Castile, based simply on the belief that he could be in danger. A police officer has the responsibility to do everything in his power to go home at the end of each shift safe and alive. However, an officer also has a responsibility to ensure that the public he interacts with equally is able to go home safe and alive. This indeed means, you cannot simply shoot someone or take a life because you are scared of someone, or perceive a person COULD be a threat to you.
Most importantly, if America is going to remain a culture steeped in pro-gun carrying rights, the mere presence of a firearm cannot in itself mean danger. In fact, that is the exact argument of every single pro-gun proponent in the United States of America. If we do not acknowledge this, every single 2nd Amendment advocate needs to understand that, what we allow, we encourage. In essence, this means that every single person who desires to concealed or open carry a firearm must do so with the understanding they must be able to accurately interpret all of the perceptions and beliefs of a law enforcement officer during the entirety of an encounter with them. To fail to do so means that it is legally justifiable for a police officer to shoot and kill you.
Additionally, we do a great disservice to ourselves if we deny that racial implicit bias has an influence over our decision making processes. When I discussed Yanez’s decision to pull over Castile in the first place, I mentioned that implicit racial bias has been demonstrated and proven to be a scientifically verifiable psychological process. In repeated studies, it has been shown that all people, of all races, perceive Black males to be more dangerous. We cannot dismiss that this did not have an influence on Yanez’s perception when Castile stated he had a gun on him in terms of what Castile’s intent would have been with his gun.
Finally, is there a way that we can ensure what occurred in the cases of the shooting death of Philando Castile doesn’t happen again? My answer to this is a resounding yes.
Up to this point, I’ve only expressed all the “Yin” or negative surrounding the Castile shooting death. However, as I expressed in the first article I wrote, I do indeed believe that “Yang” or Good can come out of this event. However, before I can get to my opinion of a path forward, I needed to examine and come to an understanding of exactly what were all of the circumstances that led to Castile’s death.
Now, we cannot ever bring back Mr. Castile, as painstaking as that may be. However, we can ensure that his memory is recorded as an event that led to positive change within policing and the community. In Part III of this whole series on Castile’s death, I’ll share my thoughts on how we should go forward and ensure that these types of events do not happen again.
Ultimately, there isn’t a person on this planet who shouldn’t desire to see us improve ourselves. This isn’t about being anti-cop, or antagonistic towards the community. It is about coming together as a means of improving ourselves as an entire society. Up to this point, we’ve seen so many different methods of achieving this and it all has done nothing but produce more tragic endings in the police and in the community. It has also done nothing but breed resentment and distrust on both sides. So in Part III, I’ll propose a much different path forward… Say tuned.