Blacks and Blue: About Alton Sterling and Avoiding Police Brutality

I don’t even know what to say. I honestly don’t know what I could say to adequately express how desperate Alton Sterling’s murder makes me feel as a black American.

Here is another black person shot by police that were not in any appreciable mortal danger. Police exploiting their power and the nation’s gaping legal loopholes. Police betraying their oath of honor. Police playing with culpability like taking a life is a game.

I saw the video. Alton Sterling was not given enough time or space or warning to do something that would’ve de-escalated the conflict in which he found himself inadvertently locked with two police officers.

Like Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and Freddie Grey and Eric Garner, and so many others, he was denied the right to due process and trial by jury; he was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to execution by men that were not qualified, hired, or technically allowed to do anything other than arrest him.

Alton Sterling was killed for doing something that a white person would more than likely never even get arrested for doing. Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II stunned him, shoved him to the ground, put him in a hold, and then shot him multiple times in the head and back for selling pirated CDs and having a gun in his pocket.

Alton Sterling had a criminal history of battery and illegal possession of guns, yes, but he did not have a gun out and in his hand. He did not have a gun aimed at Salamoni and Lake when they attacked him.

It is uncertain, too, whether Salamoni and Lake even knew about his priors, though they will probably say they did after this to justify their actions.

The man that made the initial call to the police about Alton Sterling said Alton was selling CDs in front of the Triple S Food Mart on North Foster Drive (Baton Rouge, LA) and had threatened him with a gun. A very vague and convenient complaint to make about a strange black man.

In the video of his murder, Alton Sterling is armed, but he isn’t presenting any imminent danger. He isn’t shooting at Salamoni or Lake. He isn’t attempting to strike one or the other of them. He isn’t attempting to flee the scene. He isn’t even reacting in a verbally violent or confrontational way to the officers. Not that any of these things is punishable by death anyway.

Yet, one of these officers shot him. Salamoni or Lake–because he could–because he wanted to–shot and killed Sterling in cold blood.

Another black citizen. Another black father. Another black son. A man. A human. Reduced to a lifeless body. A statistic. An example. A headline in the news. A Twitter hashtag. And soon enough a year-old memory in millions of people’s Facebook feeds.

Alton Sterling’s death isn’t right. It isn’t justifiable. It shouldn’t be legal, and it shouldn’t be countenanced by the political establishment or American public, but we know that it will be.

People are already protesting the actions of the police in Baton Rouge–a federal investigation is underway–but the chances that Salamoni or Lake will be convicted for Alton Sterling’s murder are slim to none, and we all know it. We will all somehow accept it.

And I don’t know what I could write that would stop that.

I don’t know what I could write that could assuage the ugliness of his murder or pain of his loss in any real way.

I am not some Pulitzer Prize winner. I am a single mother, living in suburban Ohio, trying to make meaning out of this life I’ve been given and cultural legacy I’ve inherited.

I write about things like this because writing is what I’ve always done to help me make sense of things. To help me to process difficult emotions. To make me feel like I have some modicum of power and influence over the world around me.

I write because I love it, but also because I feel like it’s important that people hear the thoughts, ideas, and emotions of a black woman embroiled in the politics of this nation.

As a black person, black feminist, and educator, I feel it’s important to speak up and out and answer oppression and the threat of annihilation with resistance and vitality.

Still, there’s nothing I can say about police murders like that of Alton Sterling that hasn’t already been said and said by people more eloquent and important than me. Except this. This one thing that I want to address not to this nation’s policemen, politicians, or even to the media, but rather to the average American that may be reading this on his or her screen–

I just want to ask you–white, black, or otherwise–to please, please stop calling the police on black people that are not truly–and I mean truly–threatening your life or someone else’s with their actions and/or an actual weapon.

In the ‘hood, it’s the code. Black people, for the most part, don’t involve the police in minor conflicts because they have generally brought a lot of unneeded and unwanted–unproductive–machinations into our communities.

Now, they bring a degree of lethal brutality that is so reminiscent of the Reconstruction era in American history, it’s scary.

So please do not create unnecessary opportunities for trigger-happy officers to murder innocent and/or unarmed people–devastate families and neighborhoods–destroy the fabric of public trust in law enforcement and faith in human goodness–and get away with it.

In a December 2014 article about the way American police are trained, a former officer named Seth Stoughton writes:

 . . . American police officers are among the best-trained in the world, but what they’re trained to do is part of the problem.

Police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance. Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. But cops live in a hostile world. They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat. They always have to be on their guard because, as cops often say, “complacency kills.”

Officers aren’t just told about the risks they face. They are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance. And as they listen to the fallen officer’s last, desperate radio calls for help, every cop in the room is thinking exactly the same thing: “I won’t ever let that happen to me.” That’s the point of the training.

Stoughton goes on to say:

More pointed lessons come in the form of hands-on exercises . . . There are countless variations, but the lessons are the same: Hesitation can be fatal. So officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized, to not wait until the last minute because the last minute may be too late.

But what about the consequences of a mistake? After all, that dark object in the suspect’s hands could be a wallet, not a gun. The occasional training scenario may even make that point. But officers are taught that the risks of mistake are less—far less—than the risks of hesitation. A common phrase among cops pretty much sums it up: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

It’s important that we as Americans understand and accept this ugly truth: Police are not trained to put our safety first or even the so-called duties of the job in the forefront of their decisions and actions. They are taught to do as much enforcing of the law as they can as they work as hard as they can to ensure that they are not hurt.

They are trained, expected, and encouraged to put themselves before the people they protect and the communities they serve.

This is a drastically different concept of a police officer’s duties than the concept propagated in grade school classes, political public relations, and the media.

The Law Enforcement Oath of Honor states:

On my honor,
I will never betray my badge,
my integrity, my character,
or the public trust.
I will always have
the courage to hold myself
and others accountable for our actions.
I will always uphold the Constitution,
my community and the agency I serve.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “courage” in the context of the oath means “having the strength to withstand unethical pressure, fear or danger.”

So a police officer that shoots before a threat is fully realized may be doing what he or she is trained to do–he or she may even be doing what most people would do–but he or she is also displacing his or her duty.

Police, when they take the oath to become officers, are essentially saying that they will attempt to be exceptional–helpful, ethical, brave, and responsible for the safety of others–for the sake of their profession.

If we know, though, that police officers on the whole do not take the oath as seriously as they take the principles of their training then we have to react to them like the posers and sometime sadists and opportunists that they are.

Stoughton writes:

In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it. Not only do officers hear it in formal training, they also hear it informally from supervisors and older officers. They talk about it with their peers. They see it on police forums and law enforcement publications . . . Officers’ actions are grounded in their expectations, and they are taught to expect the worst.

And I say–so, too, should we as citizens when it comes to calling on police officers for help.

According to statistics, cops are assaulted in o.o9% of all interactions (63 million total) each year. Only 0.02% are injured and 0.00008% are killed.

Some might say this is because they are vigilant about protecting themselves, and, that may be true, but this reasoning goes against the purpose of law enforcement, which is, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the “prevention, detection, and investigation of crime and the apprehension of alleged offenders.”

I say–if cops are trained to prioritize themselves and not the job then we civilians should probably train ourselves, in direct and appropriate response, not to trust them.

We may even be safer, especially we black folk, if we commit on a wide scale to calling the police less often to apprehend people that are not posing a lethal threat.

That is since “officers use more force when they perceive a greater threat, [and] unconscious bias can lead officers to react more aggressively when confronting black men than they would when confronting others in otherwise identical situations.”

Either way, we need–Americans collectively–to acknowledge, for our own good, that many police officers are nothing but armed, narrowly skilled customer service workers that will only do what they must to keep their jobs.

We need to stop viewing them across the board as heroes that have learned to stop their emotions and biases from getting in the way of their work, and we need to stop relying on them to handle situations that are really just annoying or make us uncomfortable or intimidated but are not life-threatening.

The person that called the police on Tamir Rice told the dispatcher that Tamir was a minor, and he was probably playing with a toy gun. He or she probably felt uncomfortable with the imagery of the young black boy with the real-looking air rifle and wanted to “erase” it from his or her environment, but didn’t feel entitled or confident enough as an adult or member of the community to approach Tamir and tell him so.

Calling the police probably seemed logical to him or her because the police are supposed to handle nuisances. However, in the current climate, it might just have been better for the caller to find Tamir’s mother and talk with her about Tamir or even leave the park.

Calling the police drew a cop with a terrible record and obvious lack of interest in following procedure or keeping peace to the scene, where he shot and killed Tamir without even attempting to question or disarm him.

Mike Brown allegedly stole a couple packs of cigarillos from a convenience store, prompting the clerk to call the police on him.

No–Brown shouldn’t have been stealing, but there is actually such a thing as crime insurance which manages businesses’ loss exposures from criminal activities like thefts.

This means the owner of the convenience store could’ve gotten back the money for the shrink to which Mike contributed by filing a claim with his insurance company.

So the clerk didn’t have to call Darren Wilson to the scene of such a minor crime. He didn’t have to set Mike on the path to get 12 bullets fatally pumped into him.

The law stipulates the penalties for minor crimes like Alton’s and Mike’s, the Constitution stipulates the treatment they should receive as suspects, but police like Wilson and the officers in Cleveland and Baton Rouge ignore these stipulations.

Because they can, and there are no stiff or lingering consequences, they take the law into their own hands.

So maybe the most realistic solution to this problem is that we–the citizenry–take things into our own hands as well and try to address the problem of police brutality among ourselves.

And before you balk at what I’m asking–before you accuse me of asking too much or being completely unrealistic–please hear me out:

I’m not asking people to risk their safety in the face of plausible threats or drawn weapons. That wouldn’t make any sense.

I’m just asking that we start to think long and hard about how obsessive we are about our possessions and property and moralistic we are about other people’s behavior and how that translates into what we expect and want from police.

I think we can take some time and think long and hard about the real reasons we call the police when we call them and whether we are placing more value on things or money than people if and when we do.

Human lives are more valuable than any commodities or material items we can buy or own, and we need to regard them that way, not as collateral damage in the war to amass wealth or campaign to prove our moral superiority.

In the interest of keeping ourselves and others safe from the dangerous consequences of police officers’ skewed training, perhaps we should only call the police when it’s absolutely necessary, especially if we are calling them to detain a person that isn’t posing a lethal threat to us.

Perhaps in doing this, we can decrease the chances of someone getting murdered by some cop not properly schooled in de-escalation, tactical withdrawal, or thinking beyond his or her gun belt.

It’s probably unreasonable to make this request of average American citizens, I acknowledge that.

The way I see it, though, we’re the only ones that seem to care about how murderous police procedures have become in this country.

So, I ask again: please stop calling the police on black people that are not truly threatening your life or someone else’s with their actions or a deadly weapon.

As a fellow citizen, and human, help take away some of law enforcement’s power to destroy black lives.

It may sound a bit anarchistic, turning away from the cops like this, but, if cops won’t uphold their oath, then I want to know: Why should we uphold the false image we have of them?

Why should we drag ourselves into collusion with them to needlessly take other people’s lives?

Why should we keep allowing them to get bolder and bolder until we mess round and one day become their victims?

If all lives matter then black lives are included in that, and people outside of the black community should want to fight for them just as hard as they fight for their own.




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