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COLUMN: The Unblamed Parties in Officer-Involved Shootings

OPINION: Jessica Szilagyi talks about the latest verdict in the trial of former DeKalb County Police Officer Robert Olsen, in which she says the public outrage is clouding the conversation on what police accountability even means.

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.

Pro Roof GA

Here we are again. The third trial stemming from an officer-involved shooting in the last three weeks has concluded. First Amber Guyger (guilty of murder), then Zechariah Presley (not guilty of voluntary manslaughter and not guilty of involuntary manslaughter), now Robert Olsen.

If you’re unfamiliar with Robert Olsen, he previously worked for the DeKalb County Police Department before a confrontation with Anthony Hill in March 2015 which resulted in Hill’s death. Hill was unarmed and also naked at the time of the shooting, which has drawn attention to training officers receive when it comes to people believed to be dealing with mental health issues. Hill was a veteran. On Monday, a jury found Olsen not guilty of felony murder (two counts) and guilty of aggravated assault, violation of oath (two counts), and making a false statement. He will be sentenced at a later date, but could face upwards of 35 years in prison if sentenced to the max on all four charges.

Among the three recent cases, that’s one guilty, one not guilty, and one deemed ‘guilty of some things.’

Of course, the social media warriors on both sides emerged within minutes of the news about the jury’s decision.  Among the comments on social media:

  • “Why didn’t he just shoot to distract him with maybe a small flesh wound?”
  • “Not surprised at all…he’s a cop. I never expect to be found guilty of murder.”
  • “Leave your family every day not knowing if you will be coming home. If you are not willing to do this, please just shut up.
  • “Always easy to judge when sitting in your house all safe and not put in a situation that you have to make a split second decision.”
  • “Surely no ne is shocked when the police investigated themselves.”

But I question if the anger is misdirected. Only one of the comments read, “I am disappointed in the judicial system in DeKalb.” That’s a reasonable conclusion – to be upset with the system. While it’s reasonable, I’m not sure if it’s all encompassing. 

Of course, the natural reaction in cases like this is to hold the officer accountable in some way. After all, that is the person who ultimately pulled the trigger. I’m not willing to entertain the racial component as the cause of Hill’s death, but I will consider it with regard to the jury and their decision – only to the degree that there are instances where people of varying races receive varying verdicts. Sit in a courtroom for a day and you’ll see how public defenders and private practice attorneys compare, how money and political sway and impact a plea agreement, and much more.

But how do we hold an officer accountable for a shooting? It seems that no outcome is sufficient for those seeking accountability. Termination from the agency, a guilty verdict, a prison sentence…it’s never quick enough, harsh enough, or a long enough sentence for some in the public. Along those lines, the same people who say police shouldn’t be placed on a pedastal while policing want them held to a higher standard when the officer is at the defense table. Which is it?

We also seem to have a problem directing blame appropriately during the process.

How is it that we hold law enforcement officers – or any person charged with a crime – accountable for something a jury did. Whether the actual incident was intentional or a mistake or an accident, very few people are going to roll over and take the harshest punishment. Most people will try to obtain the best possible outcome in terms of sentencing and one jury delivering a verdict to one person while another jury delivers a contradicting verdict to another person is no fault of the persons charged. That is the very purpose of a defense attorney – something constitutionally protected to the degree that in the event you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you…whether you are guilty or innocent.

The prosecutor’s job is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person facing charges is, in fact, guilty of the charges. Not guilty charges are a result of a well-trained defense attorney, a failure on the part of the prosecutor, or both. Are you mad that Olsen’s defense attorney adequately represented his client? Are you upset that the prosecutor failed to make the case for felony murder? Or are you still just mad that a person lost their life – regardless of the circumstances – and that’s transcending onto everything else?

It is unreasonable to demand that everyone be guaranteed a fair fight and a vigorous defense, but then back up on that stance because you don’t like the profession of a person or the race of a person or the circumstances. The justice system should play the same role in every case: to seek justice.  When Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison, people were outraged and said that if the roles were reversed, a black man would have life in prison so she should, too. Really? Should she? Why is the argument not to fight for a more appropriate sentence for the black man in the hypothetically reversed situation? I’d vehemently argue it’s the latter. 

There is one more component. Whenever there is an officer-involved shooting, we often hear about training. “This happened because the officer wasn’t properly trained.” My questions continue to be ‘What is ‘enough’ training’? Who determines how much is enough? And are we to assume that all of the officers who may be deficient in training are deficient in the same places? Arguably there should be minimum standards in place, but if the minimum standards are met by the officer,  what would lead an officer to believe that he/she does not have the necessary training to do the job? At what point do we look to the employing agency and expect them to go beyond the minimums? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that an inadequately trained officer gets the additional training needed?…a question that should come after you identify who is responsible for determining inadequate training. Does the officer need additional training in de-escalation? Use of force? Mental illness? Basic social skills? Most importantly…when should an agency be expected to recognize a deficiency? Because the conversation by the public about how much training an officer needs seems to come after an incident is made public. What are you advocating for when a story like this isn’t making headlines? And while we’re talking about it, what would it mean to hold an agency accountable?

The conversation on these officer-involved shootings is wrong and it keeps happening at all the wrong times. Who is going to be reasonable after a shooting? Who wants to listen to considerations of a process when the narrative has become personal? Who wants to hear the words ‘justifiable use of force’ when they’re emotional? How many people’s minds are you changing when you only mention racial indicators? Very few people, indeed. 

Officer-involved shootings are all unique. Very few are like the others. But every one of them is multifaceted and includes components of the circumstances of the shooting, the socioeconomic status of the officer and the victim, tenure on the job, racial disparities in the community, the jury pool, the legal defense, the District Attorney’s Office, the media coverage, the available evidence, and the instructions from the judge. How many of those things mentioned can actually be controlled by the officer? 

Being angry that an officer-involved shooting occurred is an entirely different issue from pointing out flaws in the judicial system, considering the active role of an agenc in officer training, and the tone of the conversation on what you think should be done about officer-involved shootings. Which of those do you believe will espouse a discussion on any changes or reforms you think are needed?

Jessica Szilagyi is a former Statewide Contributor for

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Gregory L Stewart

    October 14, 2019 at 5:29 pm

    Excellent analysis! The problem is that the underlying issues only get attention when someone gets killed. Also, there is no way to remove race from this discussion based the historical treatment of non white people by law enforcement. The issue is a policy issue with a valid emotional component.

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