Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Alton Sterling's Death - Use of Force Gone Wrong

Cameron Sterling & Quinyetta McMillan earlier today
Another July, yet another senseless death at the hands of overzealous police officers responding to a non-violent civil offense.

The world is once again stunned over video showing police officers killing a man who's already restrained on the ground.

Last night two officers from the Baton Rouge Police Department shot and killed 37-year old Alton Sterling after a confrontation escalated over, of all things, Sterling selling CD's outside of a small store. Not drugs or weapons. CD's.

Earlier today I listened to some audio excerpts from the press conference in Louisiana earlier this morning where Quinyetta McMillan, the mother of Alton Sterling's 15-year-old son Cameron, read a statement to the media about the impact of Sterling's death.

If you haven't heard it, McMillan read her statement with remarkable composure, but it was difficult to concentrate on her words with the sound of Sterling's son Cameron crying softly as he tried to cover his face (pictured above), watching this child, clearly traumatized over watching video of his father's violent death, brought this incident into a human perspective.

While preliminary reports indicate police responded to the scene based on a 911 call from what media reports have described as "an anonymous caller" reporting an armed man, during her press conference this morning Quinyetta McMillan insisted Alton Sterling was simply selling CD's.

Thus far there's no definitive evidence that Sterling had a gun or attempted to point it at the two officers who had him pinned to the ground.

Judge for yourself, if you watch the cell phone video taken at the scene by a horrified bystander, Sterling is standing by the front of the car arguing with the police officers, but there's nothing in his hand, nor is he threatening them with any kind of weapon.

While an investigation is just getting started, and all the facts are not yet known, the parallels between this case and the death of Eric Garner two years ago on July 17, 2104, are disturbingly similar.

Alton Sterling
Two heavyset African-American men, fathers of children with families, engaged in selling items of relatively little value to make a few bucks being confronted by white police officers who somehow escalate a remarkably minor civil infraction to the point that they feel the use of deadly force is justified.  

Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes on a street in Staten Island in the neighborhood where he lived.

After members of the NYPD confronted and attempted to arrest Garner, officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Garner in an illegal choke-hold even as he was already on the ground being restrained by other officers, rendering him unconscious - minutes later he was dead.

Despite the video evidence, a grand jury declined to press charges, Daniel Pantaleo is working the streets of New York as a police officer as you read this.

It's way too early to tell what the outcome of this case will be as far as the two officers being held responsible for Sterling's death, but a federal investigation is underway.

Baton Rouge PD officer Blane Salamoni 
But there were Justice Department investigations into the death of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray too - thus far no one was held legally responsible for their deaths.

The two officers have been identified as Howie Lake, II and Blane Salamoni (pictured left), and it is interesting to note that the New York Times reports that Salamoni's father Noel Salamoni is a captain of special operations on the Baton Rouge police force.

As I've often said in far too many entries on this blog, at some point this country needs undertake a serious examination into what is going on inside the minds of police officers who are so quick to resort to the use of deadly force in situations that don't warrant it.

Especially when the victim is a person of color in a nation in which entrenched racial bias in policing is a problem in police departments across the country.

It's hard to watch, but take a close look at that cell phone video, watch the officer nearest to the camera remove his handgun from his holster even as he's on top of Sterling.

Obviously I can't understand what was going on in his mind at that moment before Sterling was fatally shot in the chest and the back, but viewed from the standpoint of a civilian who has seen too many of these videos, did he think his life was threatened by a man already pinned to the ground by two officers?

Or did the race of Alton Sterling unconsciously make him seem more of a threat than he actually was in the mind of the man who shot him?

As in many things, perception is everything, but in this case, from what we know so far, it seems perception was the difference between life and death.

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