The police in Baton Rouge, La., shot and killed a man on Tuesday around midnight. His name was Alton Sterling. He was 37, black, and was selling CDs. He reportedly had a gun, though Sterling’s friend and the owner of the store he died in front of said he didn’t see Sterling point or even touch the gun, and the cops had to remove it from his pockets after he was dead.
Video shared by an anti-violence activist group captured a confusing scuffle. It’s difficult to tell what is going on, though Sterling does not appear to be fighting with the two officers. There is the sound of a stun gun or Taser, a cop has Sterling on the ground, and an arm on his neck, and then one gunshot. The camera moves away, and several more shots follow. Those filming are horrified. A woman cries.
WARNING: GRAPHIC VIOLENCE
Sterling died from multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. Both officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, were suspended pending an investigation. Every police department follows that procedure after a fatal shooting. What isn’t procedure is that both officers’ body cameras were reportedly somehow “dangling.“ Both of them. That’s either a shoddy product, or someone is fibbing. It’s unclear if they recorded anything at all from the incident. As in many other incidents it was up to a bystander to film it. Police also apparently took the security camera footage from the store near where Sterling was killed. The Department of Justice plans to investigate the shooting.
The death of Sterling provoked nearly instant outrage. His family wept during a press conference. More than 100 people protested down the street from where he died. Black Lives Matter had to add another name to its list.
Some people were hungry to talk about Sterling’s rap sheet. The New York Daily News notes the fact that Sterling was sentenced to five years in jail back in 2009 for marijuana and weapons possession, neither of which are violent crimes. That’s a long time to be jailed for something that didn’t hurt anyone.
Sterling also appears to have been a registered sex offender due to what is known as “carnal knowledge of a juvenile.” This means that Sterling had sexual contact with someone between 12 and 17 years old when when he was around 21. Considering it was a felony criminal act, the girl likely was no older than 16. That suggests Sterling might have been a bit sleazy or a lot sleazy. But that doesn’t mandate the death penalty. And it doesn’t remove the fact that he also suffered under the criminal justice system, was a person with a family who is now mourning him, a person who did not deserve to be shot dead on the street.
According to the Washington Post’s count, nearly 1,000 people were killed by police in 2015. This year we’re up to 505.
Most officers escape punishment thanks to laws that allow them leniency in decision-making and a society that still tends to find police more sympathetic than alleged criminals.
Some people killed are more sympathetic than others. Some people really do fire guns at the police or fight with them. In the former case, a lethal response is justified. In most cases, it’s doubtful that it is. So many people have died in so many ways at the hands of police, long before they ever got charged with anything, if they ever would have been.
Some people are mowed down on bridges during a hurricane’s aftermath. Some people were carrying air rifles, or were 12 years old. Some people touched their waistband. Some people died in a van. Some people were wearing headphones. Some people were mentally ill–actually, a great deal of the victims of police violence are, according to estimates–and cried out for their dad. All of them died at the hands or the guns of police. Most of those officers escaped punishment, thanks to a combination of laws that allow them leniency in decision-making and a society that still tends to find police more sympathetic than alleged criminals.
The point is not making each deceased person an angel–just a human who deserved a better treatment. The point is that if police are so much better than we are–brave, noble, strong, patient–they need to act like it. Many of them do, but too many still don’t. And if we the people are really committed to criminal justice reform, we’re going to need to accept that even people who did something wrong deserve a second chance, not a series of justifications for their death after they’re shot down by police.