Here we go again. When 37-year-old Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot and killed by officers of the Baton Rouge Police Department on Tuesday, it ignited protests around the country.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that it had opened a civil rights investigation after what the New York Times described as a “searing video of the encounter, aired repeatedly on television and social media, reignited contentious issues surrounding police killings of African-Americans.”
According to published accounts, the two white officers were arresting Mr. Sterling after responding to a call about an armed man. Mr. Sterling was pinned to the ground when at least one of the officers shot him.
In a statement from the ACLU, “We are angered and saddened by the killing of Alton Sterling by police officers. It is shameful that his death marks the 122nd killing of a Black person by U.S. law enforcement this year.
“Law enforcement’s killing of Alton Sterling is a horrific reminder of the systemic and pervasive racism in our society,” they continued. “It is tempting to focus only on the officers who pulled the trigger or the police department that they work for. But his death was not just the result of these officers’ actions; it is a violent manifestation of the racism that our society and institutions continue to tolerate and enable.
“The remarkable claim that both officers’ body cameras fell off during the same incident also underscores that body cameras alone won’t solve racially-biased policing and excessive use of force,” they said. “We hope the swiftness of the Department of Justice’s decision to open an investigation leads to change not only in Baton Rouge, but across the U.S. We need systemic change in order to create a racially just world.”
Radley Balko, a police use of force critic who now writes for the Washington Post, opined yesterday that Mr. Sterling’s death “appears to be another police shooting that was both legal and preventable.”
Mr. Balko notes that a man dressed in red was selling CDs and allegedly pointed a gun at someone. “Sterling was wearing red and allegedly had a gun in his pocket. The witness to the shooting — the owner of the convenience store — said the cops seemed aggressive from the start. The witness also said that Sterling was complying with the officers, and that he wasn’t holding the gun, nor did he have a hand near the gun when he was shot.”
Mr. Balko writes, “In the video, one of Sterling’s hands is clearly not a threat, but his other hand isn’t visible. There’s also body camera and dash camera footage that has yet to be released.”
From what we know right now, he writes that “this appears to be another case of police officers deploying lethal force that was likely legal, but was also unnecessary.”
He notes, “The witness’ observation that the police officers appeared to be escalating the situation isn’t contradicted by the video, but the video also doesn’t definitively prove him correct. A police officer can use deadly force if he believes his life or the lives of others are threatened, and if that belief is objectively reasonable. Here we have a witness who says Sterling posed no serious threat, and video that strongly suggests but doesn’t completely the witness’ account to be valid.”
Mr. Balko, after running through some scenarios, concludes, “If this is indeed what happened, then the officers miscommunicated, and the miscommunication caused them to kill Sterling. That likely isn’t a crime — at least for the first shot.”
However, he notes that if the witness is correct regarding the aggressiveness of the police actions, then at least some of the miscommunication “was likely caused by heightened volatility and peril. And the heightened volatility and peril were caused by the escalation. That the officers escalated is also supported, but not completely proven, by the video. The audio to the video picks up just as an officer is screaming at Sterling to “Get on the ground!” Seconds later, we see them tackle Sterling and throw him to the pavement.”
Mr. Balko believes it is inconclusive whether Mr. Sterling was resisting.
He concludes from this, “All of which is why training police in de-escalation is so important. Physical confrontation like the kind we see in this video immediately raises the stakes and narrows the margin for error for everyone involved. A misheard directive, a misinterpreted gesture, or any other miscommunication can quickly become fatal.
“Perhaps in the coming days we’ll learn that in this particular situation, the officers had no choice but to take Sterling down, though the video at least suggests otherwise. Yet we’ve see way too officer-involved shootings in recent years in which the officers’ perception (or misperception) of the threat was reasonable at the moment of the shooting, but in which the officer or other officers’ escalation helped create the threat in the first place,” he continues.
He therefore argues, “If we really want to reduce fatal police shootings instead of merely adjudicating them, we need to train officers in tactics that subdue threats, reward those who resolve threats without violence, and discourage actions that create unnecessary confrontation, violence, and escalation. And when these shootings are investigated — be it by the DOJ, internal affairs departments, local prosecutors or an outside agencies — it’s time to start looking beyond whether or not the shooting was justified under the black letter of the law. It’s time to start asking whether the shooting was preventable — and if it was, whether the failure to prevent it was due to poor training, bad policies, or police officers acting in contravention of policies or training.”
He ends his column: “Was it legal? is the question we ask when deciding whether or not to prosecute. Was it preventable? is the question we need to ask to save lives.” Balko, on the other hand, says it’s inconclusive whether Mr. Sterling was resisting.
—David M. Greenwald reporting