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Lawrence O'Donnell Breaks Down Why Police Get Away With Murder

O'Donnell explains why citizens with cameras have changed the game, and how uninformed juries have their sympathies played in favor of cops.
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Lawrence O'Donnell spent 8 straight minutes on AM Joy this weekend giving a master class on why police get away with murder. The starting point was the tragic killing (I want to call it murder, but my editor and future lawyer would probably not let me...) of Antwon Rose. This marvelously sweet, generous, intellectual kid - by all accounts - was shot in the back as he ran away from a police officer who had been on the East Pittsburgh force for a grand total of 90 minutes. The officer had been dismissed from his previous job with the University of Pittsburgh police department for cause.

REID: For three straight days people have taken to the streets of East Pittsburgh to protest the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose by police. Rose was shot Tuesday while attempting to go flee a car that had been stopped by police because it matched the description of a vehicle involved in a nearby shooting. Rose was unarmed, though police say they found an empty clip in his pocket and two guns in the vehicle. The video of him getting shot as he ran away has sparked outrage, and we want to warn you, you will find it disturbing. (shows video) The officer who shot Rose had been sworn onto the East Pittsburgh police force for just hours - HOURS - before the shooting. He's now on administrative leave. Back with me to discuss, Lawrence O'Donnell, host of MSNBC's "The Last Word, and the author of "Deadly Force, A Police Shooting and My Family's Search for the Truth." It was recently republished in paperback with a new preface. Congratulations. I was bragging I have an old school version of the book.

O'DONNELL: It's actually, the original is over 30 years old. One of the sad things to report is I've been on this subject for 35 years. And the only thing that has changed is that we now have video like that. That video didn't exist for 35 years.

REID: Why doesn't that video change the outcome in these cases?


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O"DONNELL: It's going to have a very powerful effect on the outcome for a bunch of reasons. That's going to be the crucial piece of evidence for the District Attorney studying this already. After -- this book first came out in 1983. The next year, the year after this book came out, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to make it legal to shoot fleeing felony suspects, because a bunch of states at that time, not all of them, but a bunch of states had laws that specifically state that it's legal to shoot a fleeing felony suspect. All they have to do is flee.

REID: Yeah.

O'DONNELL: The Supreme Court said, "No, that's an unconstitutional law, you can't do that." So, now, the justification for shooting has to be some threat to someone and by definition, unarmed fleeing suspects are not a threat to anyone.

REID: Yeah.

O'DONNELL: The police officers' stories, always in these cases, almost always would carry this phrase: "He turned in a threatening manner as if to shoot." I have seen that phrase word for word in countless police reports over decades and without that video, "He turned in a threatening manner as if to shoot" would work as a complete defense and it doesn't matter after the fact if it turns out he didn't have anything this his hand or he had a phone in his hand or had a toy in his hand, but that video shows someone running away, being shot at while running away. The autopsy is going to come out. The autopsy very likely is going to show entrance wounds in the back and the story in my book, the entrance wounds when the autopsy comes out are in the back and the back of the head and the back of the neck, and that kind of information is going to determine where this case goes. It's a very, very -- I don't -- it's not clear to me at this stage what the defense would be here. Police officer has been suspended, which is the correct action. If you had to bet in this case, I would bet it is going to go against the police.

So, shooting a fleeing felony suspect is unconstitutional. Cameras have made it much harder for police to plant evidence on victims. Allegedly. In the Rose case, it will be nearly impossible for the defense to argue, "He turned to me as if to shoot," because the footage clearly shows he was running away as he was shot and as he fell. And yet, Reid asks the questions so many of us still have...why is it still happening so much, and why are they getting away with it?

O'Donnell's answers are incisive and need to be amplified to the loudest volumes so that every potential juror can hear them. Read on.

REID: It's interesting. You come from a family of lawyers. Would be one of the great thing is you learn more about you, Lawrence O'Donnell.

O'DONNELL: It's a very personal story, and I don't get personal publicly but this book is the story of my family, and the story of my father, who was a Boston cop, who became a lawyer who took on one of these cases fighting his own police department. Very dramatic story. We actually turned it into a tv movie on CBS in the 1980s. It was the defining version of this story at the time. Defining only in the sense that this was the one time, this one time that a lawyer went into court and proved that the police were lying and that this really was a police killing and it was like a lightning strike.

REID: Yeah.

O'DONNELL: Because it's not like people were successfully going into court after that.

REID: Right.

O'DONNELL: And doing it again.

REID: I feel like this has parallels to the Walter Scott case, the way you're describing it. I want to read a little bit about the description, here. "This book is about what it was like before that fleeing felon rule. Before we knew the names Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Stephon Clark and many others who have inspired protesters to chant, 'Black Lives Matter!' What is shocking is how little has changed except for the new public and political awareness that there is a problem." The Walter Scott case, which was again, a man who was fleeing with his back to the officer one of the rare cases where you saw justice in the case, and even that had a hung jury.

O'DONNELL: Without video, there wouldn't have been a jury.

REID: Right.

O'DONNELL: Without video, the story would have been, "He turned in a threatening manner as if to shoot," or there would have been a planted weapon of some kind as there is...

REID: Which was tried with Walter Scott.

O'DONNELL: In this book the police tried to plant a weapon at the scene. There were too many witnesses so they couldn't plant the weapon right with the dead victim of this shooting. They had to plant it at some distance from him and were able to prove that that was a plant. But video changes everything, and video is the huge development and that's why the people who pull out their phones and capture those scenes are doing the most important investigative work that can be done in these cases because the first thing it does is it limits the police ability to tell a story.

REID: Yeah.

O'DONNELL: And let me tell you, in the old days, 35 years ago, if there were guns in that car, and the dead body was over there, the police would have taken the guns out of that car, put it in the hand of the dead victim and there would have been no video of that. That video camera and the awareness that there are these video cameras prevents them from doing some of these things but what's true of it all, though, is the spirit of trying to get away with it once a mistake has been made is still there and it controls virtually everything that the police do after the fact.

REID: Why is it still so hard to convict police officers in cases where to the layperson it seems obvious, you know, the Tamir Rice case comes to mind, that this was an unlawful, a murder, to a lot of people? Why is it so hard?

O'DONNELL: There is a tremendous public bias in favor of police. It's a really hard thing to do. People believe the job is much more dangerous than it is. The truth of the job is that most police officers in America in a 30-year career never, never hear the sound of gunfire. They never hear it.

REID: Yeah.

O'DONNELL: They never have to take out their guns. They never fire their guns.

REID: Yeah.

O'DONNELL: And so there is this exaggerated notion of how dangerous it is and that creates an exaggerated sympathy for the story that the police officer is telling and they are absolved in that process of having to explain each decision. Right? So, Michael Brown is shot several times. There is no explanation for the second bullet, right? The first bullet is, "I felt threatened." Okay, so you fired one. A police officer is supported to evaluate after every shot what the police officer does next.

REID: Yeah.

O'DONNELL: You only fire the second, third, fourth, and fifth for specific reasons to each one of those bullets. The juries are absolving them of that responsibility.

He is right. These things keep happening and police continue to escape consequences because there is an exaggerated sense of danger that they face. This is not to say police aren't brave and don't face danger. But regarding shooting, and gunfire, laypeople are woefully uninformed.

Many Americans believe it is common for police officers to fire their guns. About three-in-ten adults estimate that police fire their weapons a few times a year while on duty, and more than eight-in-ten (83%) estimate that the typical officer has fired his or her service weapon at least once in their careers, outside of firearms training or on a gun range, according to a recent Pew Research Center national survey.

In reality, only 27% of officers ever fire their weapon even once while on the job.

Add racism and a culture of white supremacy into the mix, and that laws are meant to favor the police in these cases, and you have your troubling answers to Reid's question. The ones with the guns, the badges, usually the white skin, and the tanks are the ones who are permitted to claim they feared for their life, so the hail of gunfire they sprayed from their gun into a fleeing child was justified.

Keep those cameras rolling, people. Keep those batteries charged, and keep the cameras rolling.

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