Something is Wrong With Policing That Reform Can't Fix

Something is wrong with American policing that reform can’t fix.  

The police officers who killed Alton Sterling on July 15, 2016 were wearing body cameras and equipped with non-lethal weapons.  Sterling was thrown against a car and later tased before being wrestled to the ground and shot to death.

Nearly two years after he was slain by Baton Rouge police officers, prosecutors released the body camera video of Alton Sterling’s final moments.  What it shows is an Officer Salomoni arriving on the scene, rushing toward Sterling, shoving him against a car with his weapon drawn, and screaming variations of “Don’t you fucking move or I’ll shoot you in your fucking head, do you understand me?” over and over again.  

The video was released after prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against either officer.

Alton Sterling supposedly had a weapon and that alone justified his killing.  Trayvon Martin did not but fear of his hoodie and bare fists was enough to acquit the man who shot him in the street.  

Alton Sterling had a weapon and that alone justified his killing.  John Crawford held only a toy but the paralyzing apprehension of a brown man in a department store was enough to clear the officers who shot him dead between the aisles.

Alton Sterling had a weapon and that alone justified his killing.  Philando Castille’s handgun was legally registered, but the knowledge of its presence was enough to acquit the officer who shot him dead next to his bawling girlfriend.

Alton Sterling was resisting arrest and that justified his killing.  Freddie Gray was subdued, restrained, and in police custody when he sustained injuries that left him dead but the officers responsible never served a day.

Alton Sterling was resisting arrest and that justified his killing.  Walter Scott was running away from the bullet that entered his back and the officer who fired it was convicted only after a video emerged of him handcuffing Scott’s lifeless body and rearranging evidence at the scene.

Alton Sterling was breaking the law and that justified his killing.  But guilt or innocence shouldn’t matter. In truth, they don't matter and never have.  Justice stands blind-folded with her scales at the courthouse door, but on the street, she is neither blind nor concerned with balance.  Alton Sterling was breaking the law but Tamir Rice was a child at play; Tamir Rice appeared armed to a poorly trained officer but Reykia Boyd never did.  Reykia Boyd was in an altercation with the off-duty officer who took her life but Akai Gurley was just walking down the stairs. Akai Gurley’s death was accidental but Eric Garner but Laquan McDonald but Michael Brown but Amadou Diallo but Rodney King but …

At some point, we have to recognize the obvious.  The circumstances are fluid and the individuals are always different but there is one thing to which they all testify.  We will look for any way to rationalize the deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement. We will allow police to abuse their authority with impunity in communities of color.  We will mine any stereotype or racial anxiety to justify the brutalization and killing of people in our communities without due process.

Alton Sterling’s encounter with the police was probably normal in just about every way.  He was committing only a minor infraction. He probably did have the gun the 911 caller claimed.  The police officer was wearing a body camera. His partner had a taser and deployed it. But the video shows the police arriving and immediately escalating the situation.  An officer immediately pointing a gun at Sterling’s head. Immediately treating him as though his life were disposable. Ninety seconds after the video begins, Alton Sterling’s life ends.

Reform is not enough.  More body cameras may mean fewer death threats bellowed in the course of an arrest, but the officers and the culture that enables them will still exist.  More tasers may mean fewer Eric Garners, but it may simply be a trade for more Alton Sterlings and the militarization and oppositional posture of American policing won’t have changed.  Independent prosecutors may mean fewer refusals to prosecute, but more acquittals at trial.  After all, the laws that bar juries from considering words like “shoot you in the fucking head” indicative of intent will still be on the books.  Union reform may mean more dismissals after the bullets strike bone, but the power structure will not have changed.

Radical change – a fundamental shift in the way that police relate to their communities, laws that serve justice and allow full investigations, decarceration, bail reform, anti-poverty campaigns, affordable housing, jobs programs, political enfranchisement – is what the problem requires.  It’s not a legal question but a moral one

Police act in the name of their community and the actions we countenance reflect not only on them but on us.  Alton Sterling’s slaying is indicative of bad policing only if it is a representation of a broken community, a broken system, and a broken conscience.  His death is not an aberration but a reflection of the community that watched it happen over and over and over again and did nothing to stop it. That community is local, sure, but the ubiquity of his story – Chicago, New York, Charleston, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland – betrays its much wider roots.  Alton Sterling’s community is our own. Police patrol the street in cars that we maintain, with weapons we pay for, and wearing uniforms that bear our name. What they do, what we choose to see, what we choose to allow, and what we choose to ignore is our responsibility.

“... shoot you in your fucking head ...”

Do you understand me?