Alton Sterling: The Problem With Instant Condemnation
July 7, 2016 (Fault Lines) — There are a few things that we know for sure. Alton Sterling is dead. Two Baton Rogue, Louisiana police officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, shot him. The Department of Justice is going to investigate the shooting. The NAACP wants both the mayor and police chief to resign. The governor is involved. And most importantly of all, the internet is pretty much uniform in its condemnation of the two officers.
Based on the initial viewing of the first video, which is limited to one angle, I’m going to give the officers the benefit of the doubt. Those calling for the heads of the officers, or anyone else at this point are just wrong. Period.
I’ve pretty consistently called for police to be accountable when they step out of line, when someone is killed, when there has been apparent police misconduct, when there needs to be an outside police investigation. I’ve also been consistent when the initial rush to hang the officers involved is wrong. That’s what is happening here.
The facts are fairly clear. An anonymous caller said that a black man in a red shirt, who was selling CDs, pulled a gun on him. Police pull up, see a black man in a red shirt selling CDs. There’s a fight, and Sterling ended up dead. Plus, there is cellphone video. And Sterling is a nice guy with five children. He lived in a Christian transitional shelter. He was an all-around nice guy, to hear his friends and family tell the story. He cooked for his friends. He sold CDs. Hell, he probably sang Kumbyla with the choir.
He was also a two-time convicted felon. He was currently on probation and was not allowed to carry a firearm. Let’s talk about this for a few minutes. Alton was convicted in 2000 for a sex offense with a juvenile and did four years in prison. He was later convicted of possessing a firearm while committing a drug crime (selling marijuana) and was sent away for five more years. Now he was about to be caught committing another felony, by being a felon in possession of a firearm, and would be facing 10 to 20 years on that charge. As a three-time loser, he would be looking at double that, 20 to 40 years, and if they could show that he had threatened someone with the gun, he was looking at life without parole.
He wouldn’t care too much for that, plus, with a child victim for his sex crime, he would not be looking at an easy time in jail. It could very well have motivated him not to cooperate with Officers Salamoni and Lake. We know that he wouldn’t follow their instructions. We know that the taser had no effect on him.
So the officers took him to the ground. One of the officers pinned Sterling’s left arm under his knee, but Sterling’s right arm is by his side, closest to the car, and not under control. You can see that in both the original video that was released, and in the cellphone video from the store owner. In the second video, you can clearly see that the officer closest to the car is struggling with Sterling’s right arm, in the vicinity of Sterling’s pants pocket.
Towards the end of the video, after Sterling was shot, you see an officer remove the pistol from that pocket. Despite the statements of the New York Daily News, the video does not show that Sterling did not pull his gun or that he was not trying to get to his gun. Then you have the statements that the storeowner has publicly made that Sterling’s arm was down by his side and the officer was trying to control it.
One member of the bar here in Texas commented about the pause between shots two and three. That pause is taught to officers, although it’s not the best practice anymore. We used to teach fire two shots, then assess, and then fire again if necessary to stop the threat. Here you have the warning, “He’s got a gun,” you see the officer on the left draw, but he doesn’t fire immediately. You also hear “if you f***ing move, I swear to God” and then two shots. Then there is a pause, followed by three shots. Sterling weighed over 300 pounds and being shot does not instantly stop someone who is fighting or struggling.
Everyone also seems to be pointing out that the officer took the gun out of Sterling’s pocket. So what? Exactly how did the officer know to pull a pistol out of that pocket, mere seconds after Sterling was shot? Could it be because they were desperately trying to keep Sterling from gaining control of the gun where he could draw it and use it?
The officers were responding to a “man with a gun” call, that described Sterling, and he was not cooperating with them. He did not react to being tazed. Then, when on the ground, one of the officers spots the gun and announces it, and Sterling does not surrender, does not comply, and does not give up.
The officers do not have to wait for Sterling to get control of the firearm to take action. The officers do not have to be shot first, or even fired at by Sterling. They don’t have to let him have the advantage.
It’s not pretty, but then again, the use of force, especially deadly force, never is. It does appear to be justifiable force, however, based on the two angles seen so far and the statements made by the storeowner. There may be a store surveillance video, or for that matter, other cellphone video.
At this point, we need to see what happens in the investigation. And lawyers, people who should know better than to jump on a bandwagon without all the evidence, should be calming people down, not calling for a lynch mob.
 And to be clear, this is an officer-involved shooting and fatality, and as such, should be investigate by an outside agency such as the Louisiana State Police, Bureau of Investigations.