O’Shae Terry and Police Accountability

The United States is one of the deadliest nations on earth. Statistically speaking, American police kill roughly 1,000 individuals each year, although data on officer-involved killings has been difficult to analyze. That number does not include the number of people who were shot by police, but ultimately survived the shooting. Compared to many of its European police counterparts, it takes the United States merely days to kill the number of civilians that it would normally take European police years to accumulate. While there may be obvious differences between perceived threats in the United States versus Europe and issues related to potential gun ownership of the populations they serve, there lies a larger issue of police accountability in the United States.

On September 1, 2018, O’Shae Terry and Terrence Harmon were pulled over by the Arlington Police Department on suspicion of a vehicle registration violation. Officer Julie Herlihy initiated the stop and allegedly smelled marijuana in the car and intended to do a search of the vehicle, which prompted the presence of an additional officer, Bau Tran. As Herlihy was busy in her police cruiser, Tran was tasked with standing near the vehicle occupied by Terry and Harmon. As Terry started the vehicle, the windows began to roll up. Tran shouted “Hey, stop!” and jumped onto the running board of the vehicle and proceeded to fire 5 shots at Terry, ultimately killing him.

It is important to note that there are complex legal standards governing police use of excessive force in the United States. At its most basic core, the Supreme Court has outlined the law governing such cases. An officer may not use deadly force on a fleeing suspect unless the officer believes that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others and that deadly force is necessary to prevent the suspect’s escape. Although use of force cases is analyzed under the point of view of the officer on the scene, a “reasonableness” standard also applies. The key is determining whether an officer’s actions were reasonable under the given circumstances.

It will ultimately be the responsibility of the courts to determine whether Tran believed that there was a serious risk of death or injury that prompted this bizarre barrage of gunfire. Officers are frequently involved in dangerous situations that may concern a threat to their lives or the public. It would be a stretch of reality to believe that Terry and Harmon posed such a threat to officers or the public when they were simply pulled over for a registration violation and gave no indication of being threatened. In fact, police department policies across the United States prohibit an officer from firing at moving vehicles because of the danger posed to innocent bystanders.

Earlier this month, a Tarrant County grand jury indicted Tran on a charge of criminally negligent homicide, a state felony charge with maximum confinement of only up to two years.  Although this low-level charge is arguably inadequate, it is a rare occurrence in Tarrant County. Seldom has a police officer been indicted or charges pursued by the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office in connection with an officer-involved shooting. This is a step in the right direction by showing the public that there is a plan for criminal accountability at the very least. Other officers who have engaged in similar conduct have been immediately terminated or terminated shortly thereafter. It is a travesty that Tran is still employed with the Arlington Police Department pending an administrative investigation. Justice for the Terry family includes making sure that Tran is not allowed to continue having a paid vacation 8 months after Terry’s life was taken. The punishment for leaving the scene of a traffic stop is not death. O’Shae Terry should still be alive today. His life mattered. Justice and accountability demand Tran’s termination and future consequences for officers who violate department policy and the law that

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