Alton Sterling’s Death: Who’s To Blame?

Early in the morning on Tuesday, July 5th 2016, two police officers shot and killed Alton Sterling, a 37 year old black man. There is a video of the encounter, many people are upset, and the Department of Justice will be investigating. A friend of mine posted a link to the following article in the Washington Post titled Alton Sterling’s death appears to be another police shooting that was both legal and preventable. Since I’d prefer not to pass judgement on either Mr. Sterling or the two police officers involved until after the case has been investigated and all the facts are available, I will instead address some of the points raised in that article, as well as discuss some of the facts that are available at this time. I was involved in a shoot or don’t shoot incident on duty once, and I shared the story here on my blog. I think people are far to quick to judge police officers.

Let me begin by saying that, in my opinion, the article is a fair assessment of what happened, and that’s not very common in today’s “Immediately Blame Police” media. Many of the points raised are valid, but there are a few that I believe require further reflection.

1. “The witness to the shooting — the owner of the convenience store — said the cops seemed aggressive from the start.”

The police officers were likely aggressive because they were responding to a report of a man in a red shirt who pointed a gun at someone. The goal of the police is to neutralize the threat as quickly as possible. In a case of a person with a gun, it takes mere seconds for the person with that gun to start shooting. The fastest, safest way to neutralize a threat is to overpower that threat as quickly as possible. In the video, the officers can be heard yelling “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!”. Mr. Sterling does not comply, and the video shows an officer tackling him. Aggressive? Absolutely. What would the alternative be? To keep yelling “Get on the ground”, and allow a man who is reported to have a gun, take that gun out and start shooting?

2. 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.

The fact that Mr. Sterling did not get on the ground when commanded shows that he was not complying with the officers. He had to be tackled. Just because he was not “holding the gun” does not mean he could not instantly remove it, or, fire it from his pocket. Mr. Sterling had one hand in his pocket, thus out of sight. Is it not reasonable to suspect that a man reported to have a gun, with one hand out of his pockets, and one hand in a pocket, has the gun in the pocket where his hand is?

3. But if the witness is correct about the officers acting aggressively, the miscommunication was likely caused by heightened volatility and peril. And the heightened volatility and peril were caused by the escalation.

The heightened volatility and peril were caused not by the escalation, but by Mr. Sterling’s lack of compliance. Had he simply gotten on the ground and kept his hands visible, the officers would had less reason to feel threatened.

4. Was Sterling resisting? It’s difficult to say, as is often the case with these videos. He may have been. But what looks like resisting often isn’t conscious fighting back or an affirmative attempt to hurt or injure police officers so much as instinctual self-defense. If the cops bend your arm in a way that it doesn’t want to bend, you feel pain. Your body tells you to resist whatever or whoever is bending your arm in that manner. So you push back. That isn’t aggression; it’s a natural product of our aversion to pain. Similarly, a suspect flat on pavement with a knee in his back or with multiple officers putting their weight on him may try to lift his chest. That can look like the suspect is trying to get up, resisting orders, and possibly trying to attack the officers. But he may also simply be trying to create some space to breathe. Many people panic when trapped under a lot of weight. Panic isn’t also aggression. It’s an attempt to survive.

When I read this, I got so frustrated. I got so frustrated not because I disagree, but rather because it is so obviously COMPLETELY ONE SIDED. I’d like to ask one question: what about the officer’s “instinctual reactions”? Are officers not human beings as well, subject to the same “instinctual reactions” as the people they are dealing with? The answer I usually get is “the officers are supposed be trained”. Well, that leads me to the next point.

5. 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. 

Police officers ARE trained in tactics to subdue threats. Police officers ARE rewarded when they resolve threats without violence. Actions that create unnecessary confrontations, violence, and escalation ARE NOT encouraged. But sadly, sometimes confrontation, violence and escalation ARE NECESSARY TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF OTHERS AS WELL AS THE SAFETY OF THE OFFICERS INVOLVED. So much focus is put on the actions of the police, and that is absolutely understandable. But what about the responsibility of people to comply with lawful orders given by police? Why is that which is the SINGLE MOST DETERMINING FACTOR in how police react to suspects, almost always glossed over or forgotten altogether?

Let’s cut to the chase. Training doesn’t make cops “Super Human”. Perhaps a black belt in marital arts can subdue a larger and stronger opponent quickly and effortlessly, but the average police officer can not. The time, money, and training that might enable a police officer to do this is simply not reasonable nor practical. Perhaps a trained psychologist, during hours of therapy, can ascertain why a person behaves the way he or she does. A police officer usually has seconds, not hours, to assess the motives and intentions of an individual. We can not expect our police officers to be trained black belt martial artists with PHDs in psychology.

Every police shooting should be investigated. Police training tactics should be reviewed, and updated or changed when appropriate. Police officers absolutely should be held accountable for their actions. But so should the people committing the crimes. Mr. Sterling was carrying a gun illegally. Someone reported to police that Mr. Sterling threatened him/her with said illegal gun. Mr. Sterling failed to comply with lawful police orders. Those are perhaps the greatest contributing factors as to why he is dead and it is crucial that we not lose sight of that. At the very least, the same scrutiny that is put on the actions of the police officers needs to be put on the actions of the criminals they are tasked with protecting us from. Some of the compassion that is given to the lawbreakers would be nice as well.

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