Video of the killing of Alton Sterling emerged earlier, and so it was seized upon as another “execution” of a black man by police. There was sympathy, as well there should be whenever someone is needlessly killed, and there was outrage. Providing context to why this was a lawful shoot, Radley Balko explained why so much of the shallow basis for the outrage fails to illuminate anything.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the question is whether it’s more necessary to protect a police officer from any potential threat or protect the life of a person from a police officer. The police invention in response is the First Rule of Policing.
From what we know right now, this appears to be another case of police officers deploying lethal force that was likely legal, but was also unnecessary. The witness’ observation that the police officers appeared to be escalating the situation isn’t contradicted by the video, but the video also doesn’t definitively prove him correct. A police officer can use deadly force if he believes his life or the lives of others are threatened, and if that belief is objectively reasonable. Here we have a witness who says Sterling posed no serious threat, and video that strongly suggests but doesn’t completely the witness’ account to be valid. (Emphasis added.)
As has been discussed at brutal length, the rule of Graham v. Connor, the reasonably scared cop rule, provides little legal comfort to the victim of a police shooting. If a cop believes there is a potential threat of harm, and another cop nods his bobble head, he gets the stamp of legal approval. That the killing was unnecessary isn’t the test. It should be, but it’s not.
At Fault Lines, former cop Greg Prickett deconstructs the shooting from the police perspective. offering an explanation as to why the shooters were right to invoke the First Rule of Policing. The point isn’t whether you see what he sees, but that he sees it and he’s not making stuff up. It’s not just a reasonable view, but it’s a view that, when happening in real time, makes the officer who killed look not unreasonable. And that’s all it takes to be a righteous shoot.
Then, there are the voices filled with emotion whose only purpose is to inflame the unduly passionate and make every person who reads the words stupider for having done so. The closest Roxane Gay comes to attempting to be substantive is to note that Louisiana is an open carry state, meaning that the mere possession of a gun in a pocket* (not Sterling’s pocket, since he, as a felon, was not permitted to carry) should not result in death.
While this is a real issue, open carry similarly doesn’t mean that police can’t react when responding to a call about a man who threatened another person with a gun. If the police arrive with the knowledge that this isn’t merely benign carrying of a gun, but a guy who is alleged to have taken it out and pointed it at another person, you can’t leave that tidbit out of the equation. And you certainly can’t do so and expect to be credible. But then, Roxane Gay has never allowed credibility to constrain her.
In the video, a police officer can be heard shouting that Mr. Sterling had a gun (Louisiana is an open-carry state). The National Rifle Association is likely to stay silent because the Second Amendment is rarely celebrated in these cases. The Department of Justice will investigate this case. Perhaps things are changing because the investigation was announced immediately. Charges might be brought against the two officers involved, but, as history both recent and not shows us, it is rare for police officers to be convicted in such shootings.
Put aside the irony of raising the NRA, given that they are the whipping boy for defending the Second Amendment and the whipping boy for not defending it, by the same people who demand the elimination of the Second Amendment. What is missing is facts, the parsing of what happened in this particular case.
It is rare for police officers to be convicted in “such” shootings. She means the execution of black men, because they are presumed criminals. Others would interpret this as anyone whose conduct raises an objectively reasonable threat of harm to police officers, regardless of their gender and race. Black men are killed for nothing. Black men are also killed for something. Distinguishing between the two matters.
So was this a righteous shoot? Under Graham v. Connor, as both Radley and Greg agree, it likely was a legal shoot. And that (pay attention, Roxane) is what raises the more disturbing legal problem, particularly in states that allow people to carry guns. Had the alert that “he has a gun” been false, the question raised would be whether a factually mistaken warning could give rise to a legally-cognizable objective fear of harm. Here, though, Sterling had a gun, so it doesn’t raise the reasonably stupid cop issue.
At the same time, there is no evidence to show that the police knew Sterling was a felon, precluded by law from possessing a gun, therefore making him presumptively just another guy exercising his Second Amendment right who was the subject of a call to police. Thereupon, he didn’t go down easily, whether it was the natural resistance of a guy being manhandled, as Radley explains, or active resistance, as Greg sees.
Assuming the worst for Sterling and the best for the cops, that this was active resistance, we arrive at the ultimate question. Was this a real threat to the officers’ lives? While the simplistic response is that Sterling brought this on himself by resisting, it’s an unhelpful one. We don’t execute people for being insufficiently compliant. Or, at least, we’re not supposed to.
This is where the effort at analysis becomes really sticky. At what point along the threat spectrum is a cop justified in taking a life? There is the existential threat (it’s within the realm of possibility) to the clear and certain threat (the muzzle flash), and somewhere between the two is a point where a cop gets to pull the trigger.
Cops like to say they shouldn’t have to wait for the muzzle flash before they’re allowed to act to protect their lives. This is true, but unhelpful. That the point lies before one extreme doesn’t inform where the point of shooting begins, just where it ends. If they don’t need to await the muzzle flash, should they at least have to await the glint of steel? If not, is the hint of a glint close enough? Bear in mind, we’re talking about killing a man, an outcome not to be taken cavalierly.
And then, there is the concern (are you still with me, Roxane?) that the sense of threat is influenced by the belief that a black man is more likely to pose a threat than a white man, even if it’s not a matter of overt prejudice. Graham v. Connor fails to take any of this into account, essentially deferring to the feelings, as wrapped up in cop jargon, of the cop expert called upon to testify as to the objective reasonableness of the shooting. This isn’t a sufficient test to take a man’s life.
*A gun concealed in a pocket isn’t open carry, but concealed carry, but let’s not allow such details to sidetrack an emotional appeal.