In Louisiana Alton Sterling’s Black life didn’t matter

By Dorothy Inman-Johnson

Special to the Outlook

There have been so many senseless and unjustified deaths of Black men and boys by police that it seems impossible and agonizing when nothing is done to hold these officers accountable. The latest outrage is the news, two years after Alton Sterling’s death, that no charges will be brought against the officers responsible for his murder. In 2016, at the time of Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge, police investigators claimed there was no video from the incident because the officers’ body cams were not on. However, two years later in 2018, miraculously body cam and dash cam videos have been released. It is understandable why law enforcement did not want them released during the Obama Administration. The video evidence would have surely led to federal charges by the U.S. Department of Justice against the two officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, for violating Sterling’s civil rights. However, the Louisiana Attorney General announced this week that investigations conducted by other police officers determined the shooting was justified and no charges would be filed.  Trump’s Justice Department, under Jeff Sessions, had already decided the shooting was a local issue and the federal government would not get involved; even though violations of Civil Rights laws are federal matters. Sterling’s family and most of America still cannot understand how this could have happened.

A call was made to the police by a homeless man, who had asked Alton Sterling for money and was turned down, claiming a man was threatening others with a gun. Within one and a half minutes after the arrival of police on the scene, Sterling laid dead in the parking lot of a convenience store after being shot six  times by one or both of the officers. How could the police officers have determined that Sterling was the suspect from the call, whether he had a gun, or verified there were witnesses to the alleged threat in just 90 seconds? Instead, the video showed Sterling selling CDs in front of a convenience store, with the approval of the owner, and two over-aggressive police officers running up on him yelling commands and profanity, shooting him with a stun gun, pushing him to the pavement, and shooting him six times while sitting on top of him.  A stunned Alton Sterling was heard desperately asking the officers why he was being arrested before he was killed.

To anyone with common sense and a conscience, deadly force was not justified in this case. Based on the Supreme Court decisions in the Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor cases, there are two circumstances when deadly force is justified; and the Alton Sterling case meets neither. The first is to protect the officer’s life or the life of another innocent party. The second is to prevent the escape of a suspect who poses a dangerous threat to others. Further, police department training and protocol recommend that an officer can make an arrest only in limited circumstances. First, an arrest can be made if the officer personally observes a crime. The second reason is if there is probable cause (evidence) to believe the person committed a crime. And, the third reason is if the officer has an arrest warrant issued by a judge. Upon Salamoni and Lake’s approach, Sterling was simply standing in front of the convenience store working to support his family. He did not behave in a threatening manner toward the officers or anyone else; nor did he attempt to flee. Upon being aggressively confronted by the officers, he only asked why he was being arrested. For that, he was given a death sentence by these two officers.

The Sterling family attorney Chris Stewart said, “Salamoni came at Sterling like a pit bull and immediately escalated the situation” according to the recently released videos. The Baton Rouge Police Chief has fired Salamoni for violating the department’s “use of force “ policies, and gave Lake a three-day suspension without pay for “losing his temper”. The senseless loss of life under these circumstances is tragic enough, but it must be absolutely heartbreaking for the Sterling family to be denied justice for the loss of their loved one.

In each case in which a Black man or boy has been killed by a police officer, the same excuses are used. “I thought he had a gun. I felt threatened. He resisted arrest”. The Baton Rouge Police Chief, Murphy Paul, got it right when he said, “Our police officers are held to a higher standard. Fear cannot be a driver for an officer’s response to every incident. ‘Unreasonable fear’ in an officer is dangerous”. I agree. And any officer who has that type of unreasonable fear of Black men, either due to ignorance or racial bias, has no place in law enforcement. All Americans are entitled to the same feelings of safety and protection under the law. Mr. Sterling’s death deserved greater accountability by Louisiana and the Justice Department as a clear statement that all lives really do matter.

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