A little over two years ago, I walked into the Mobile County Sheriff’s Department with my mind just about made up. News had just come out that a University of South Alabama police officer had shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old freshman on campus over BayFest weekend. As additional details began to emerge that the student was nude when he was shot and was only 5’7” and 135 lbs., the judge and jury in my head were ready to convict Officer Trevis Austin of “murdering” Gil Collar.
Questions and rushed judgments like these consumed my thoughts:
This teen could not have been more clearly unarmed, how on Earth could lethal force have been justified in this situation? He was only 5’7” and 135 lbs, you can’t tell me that officer couldn’t have subdued him without his gun! He was banging on the police station, so what? Why didn’t the cop just let him knock and wait for backup? Why didn’t he just use his Taser or pepper spray? CLEARLY there is just no way this should have happened!
But then I saw the surveillance tape of the incident as Sheriff Sam Cochran played it for the assembled media at a press conference a few days later and suddenly things weren’t so clear anymore.
Collar was obviously unarmed but he was also acting in a very aggressive and erratic manner, like someone who was under the influence of a very powerful drug, which would later be confirmed in his autopsy report.
He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world, but he was a wrestler and was very muscular and fit, not the slight 135 lb. kid I had pictured in my mind.
When he was “knocking” on the campus police station, it wasn’t just a knock, it was so violent it looked like he could have possibly broken his hand he was hitting it with such force. But he seemed to feel no pain while doing it.
Officer Austin is seen on the tape repeatedly giving him verbal commands to get down, none of which Collar ever complied with.
The actual shooting takes place off camera and what happened between the two in those last moments will never be known for certain, but you get a pretty good idea from the previous footage.
I walked out of the press conference still thinking there might have been a different way Officer Austin could have handled the situation which could have spared Collar’s life, but also understanding how Collar’s actions must have felt very threatening to Austin, who at the time did not know anything about this naked man who was lunging aggressively at him. He didn’t know he was a student or considered to be a “good kid” in his hometown. Split second decisions had to be made.
After viewing the tape, sure you can say Austin “coulda, woulda, shoulda” done a number of different things, which may have changed the outcome of this horrible situation, but I didn’t feel like he shot Collar in cold blood either. And I certainly didn’t feel like the race of either party involved played any part in it. Collar was white and Austin is black.
I ached for Collar’s family and still do. He made a poor choice – one that many college kids make – that tragically cost him his life.
This case was presented to a Mobile County grand jury. Officer Austin was not indicted and was cleared in the incident.
Since the Michael Brown case, several national media outlets and/or pundits have brought the Collar case back up, asking where the Ferguson-like outrage was for Collar?
When I first heard about the case in Missouri, I like many others across the country was outraged. Not because a WHITE officer had killed a BLACK person, but because an officer had shot an unarmed teenager.
But after reading the grand jury testimony and hearing about the forensic evidence in the Brown case, I feel much the same way I did two years ago walking out of the sheriff’s office. Perhaps Officer Darren Wilson could have done something differently to change the outcome, but I don’t think he killed Brown in cold blood. I think he reasonably believed his life was in danger. I truly believe if Brown had been the whitest kid in America and had just knocked off a convenience store and then punched Wilson in the face and tried to grab his gun, he probably would have met a similar fate as Brown. I think any of us would have, no matter what size or skin color we happened to be.
Like Austin, Wilson was also not indicted by the grand jury and was cleared in the incident.
Once again, it is the case of a kid making a very poor choice, which tragically cost him his life.
Now did the Ferguson police handle this situation horribly from the moment Brown took his last breath? Absolutely. Letting that child lay out on the street for hours is sickening and their lack of transparency in the days following the shooting did nothing but breed the mistrust they are deservedly receiving.
But I really feel like you could exchange the skin colors of any of the players in these two particular incidents and they would have turned out just the same. But I know some disagree.
With that said, I know things are far from perfect in this country. I read the same statistics and articles everyone else does and realize there is a huge disparity in the way white and black people are treated in the American justice system. It’s not fair.
After this and the Trayvon Martin case, I remember being heartbroken after hearing African-American men telling how their fathers would sit them down as young teens and talk to them about how to speak to police and even how to hold their hands so they wouldn’t be injured or killed. And how they would one day have to have that conversation with their own sons. I just couldn’t and didn’t want to believe we still lived in a world where that conversation was necessary. And I know this is something I will never fully be able to understand. But I have to believe no one wants this to be a reality.
But I also have to believe, the vast majority of police officers are just trying to do their jobs, and it’s not fair to say every time an officer shoots a person with a different skin color, that it is a racially motivated “murder.” Because more often that not, that is not the reality either.
We have to be able to trust each other once again.
Transparency is the key to rebuilding that trust, and body cameras seem to be an excellent first step – they would protect good civilians and good cops alike.
If we can all review the black and white footage of these tragic incidents, maybe the details wouldn’t end up being so gray.
But ultimately, we have to be able to objectively and honestly assess these situations, not as black people or white people, but just as, well, people.
Unless we can and are willing to do so, the divide between us will forever remain.