Once again we have a police shooting in which a black person has lost their life at the hands of the police. Introducing Alton Sterling, the latest in a long line of black people whose deadly encounters with the police were recorded and shared. In my opinion, the cell phones today that capture these events and equivalent to the television feeds of the past that captured dogs and water hoses turned on black people during the Civil Rights Movement. These shocking images led to action. These recorded incidents captured today open up the possibility to analyze and debate exactly what happened. They also allow us to add what we see to what is reported to form our own conclusion. In this case I have a few issues that need to be addressed…
- Would community-based policing help?
Community-based policing revolves around the idea that the police become a part of the communities they patrol by getting to know people. If Alton Sterling was frequently at the spot where the incident occurred, community-based policing would have allowed the cops who patrol the area to know him and his reason for being there. It looks like Alton Sterling was a seller, and his product was probably copied CDs. To be clear, selling this is illegal. But, does it rank up there with selling drugs or committing more serious crimes? Of course not! Apparently the store owner had no problem with him being there, so maybe this is one where the police give this man a citation as needed. Maybe this would have prevented the incident. Cops who knew the neighborhood would have had knowledge that Alton Sterling was not out to do anything more sinister.
2. Are cops trained to de-escalate situations?
The next issue I am looking at is the idea of de-escalating a confrontation as opposed to escalating a confrontation. Obviously, police officers should be trained to de-escalate situations. It appears to me that in these controversial police shootings, the officers escalate the conflict more often than not. You can look at the Sandra Bland and Eric Garner arrest videos as proof of the police escalating confrontations. In this case, you can clearly hear the audio of the police dropping f-bombs while trying to subdue Alton Sterling. One draws his weapon at close range and says,”(if) you #@&$ ing move I swear to God”. To me, this is escalation. Do they teach this behavior and language at the academy as a part of making an arrest or de-escalating a tense situation? I seriously doubt it. If Sterling’s reaction was fear or to fight thanks to their escalation of the incident, then the resulting gunshots and their justification come as no surprise to me
3. Guns… to carry or not to carry?
I am amazed at how many times these situations include the “I thought he had a gun” or “he was reaching for my gun” defense. Once again, this defense turned justification for using deadly force against a person of color is a part of the story. I am confused about the right to bear arms that so many people either defend or reject. If Alton Sterling had a gun, and Louisiana is an open-carry state, doesn’t he have the right to bear arms? Is his right to bear arms automatically viewed as a threat because of his skin color? If so we must ask who is really allowed to openly carry guns in Louisiana. Just so we all know this is not a one-off incident, remember that John Crawford and Tamir Rice were both killed by police for holding (toy) guns in Ohio, which is an open-carry state like Louisiana.
*As a side note, actor and activist Wendell Pierce made a salient point about gun rights: if black men bought guns and openly carried them in states where it is legal, the (open-carry) gun laws would be changed overnight.
4. How do police officers discern who is a potential threat?
The main problem I have with many cops is discernment. To me, some cops can’t tell the difference between a black person who is menacing, and one who is not. In fact, the black person who is not menacing may even seem to be threatening when in reality they are fearful of an escalating confrontation with police. In this situation, some cops would assume the same level of risk or danger. This threat is far too often met with deadly force. I have been around black people all my life. I can clearly discern who is a threat and who is not. Sandra Bland was not a threat. Eric Garner was not a threat. Walter Scott was not a threat. Akai Gurley might have been a threat, but he was killed before the officer could have possibly identified the threat he was facing.
I am saying sometimes the police should use deadly force against people who present a deadly threat. But, do all of these cases represent confrontations with angry black men and women who need to be subdued with deadly force? To be fair, Trayvon Martin and Eric Brown represented a threat. The level of that threat is still up for debate. But what if both men, and countless others, were misidentified or driven to raise their level of hostility or fear in the midst of being in a life-or-death situation against the police? No one is suggesting police officers have an easy task when assessing the level of threat they face on a daily basis. However, in light of so many incidents, any reasonable person might want to at least ask if there is a better way for police to handle this part of their job.
As a closing thought, once again I look back on my past run-ins with police officers and thank God that none of them escalated into a confrontation. The point I want to clearly make is that any or all of those events could have resulted in a conflict. If the conflict was been handled by a cop who could not discern the threat level I was presenting, dare I say I might not be alive to write this post. What if the cop mistakenly thought something I had resembled a gun? Remember back then people were not able to pull out phones and record these situations.
My frustration lies with a possibility that many people on the other side of this issue may never understand. Unfortunately, it is because they do not have the ability (or the willingness) to use empathy and walk in my shoes for two seconds. If they did, they would realize I am alive while black…
I am John Crawford. I am Eric Garner. I am Sandra Bland. I am Tamir Rice. I am Akai Gurley.
As of yesterday, I am also Alton Sterling.