On Tuesday, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was killed by police outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So far this year, more than 500 people have been killed by police, and thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, cops can continue to abuse their power with impunity, creating an especially dangerous climate for black Americans.
Sterling was selling CDs near the Triple S Food Mart when two officers arrived to investigate an anonymous call about a man in a red shirt pointing a gun at someone. Shop owner Abdullah Muflahi told the Baton Rouge Advocate that Sterling was not holding his gun or touching his pockets during the incident, but that police retrieved a gun from his pocket later. Muflahi also described the officers as "aggressive."
A graphic 48-second cellphone video taken by a bystander shows two officers pushing Sterling against a car and throwing him onto the ground before pointing a gun into his chest. There’s a flash from the officer's gun and the sound of gunshots. A man can be heard asking, “They shot him?” A crying woman answers, “Yes.” East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William “Beau” Clark told the Advocate that a Tuesday autopsy revealed Sterling died from homicide and suffered more than two gunshot wounds to the chest and back.
Public response was swift; by Tuesday evening, protesters gathered in front of the convenience store, and the crowd grew to more than 100 people. #AltonSterling trended on Twitter into Wednesday afternoon, with celebrities and politicians weighing in.
Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond released a statement on Wednesday calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the incident:
There are a number of unanswered questions surrounding Mr. Sterling's death. Including questions about the initial calls for police presence, the level of force used by officers, the verbal and physical altercation, and the response of the officers after he was shot. I call on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a full and transparent investigation into this incident. The cause of justice requires state and local law enforcement to join in this request as soon as possible.
According to the Guardian’s The Counted, Sterling is the 558th person and 135th black person this year killed by police in the U.S.
With nearly as many black people killed by police as there are days in 2016 so far, Complex reached out to Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, co-director of Human Rights Watch U.S., to ask about police brutality, and what we can do to fix it. “The solution to police abuse—whether it’s killings or harassment—lies primarily at the state and local levels," she said. "State and local governments need to review police department practices, leadership, training, and funding structures. And—very importantly—they need to create effective mechanisms to hold police accountable for abuses, including for excessive use of force.”
But if we’re looking for a solution from local or federal government, things look bleak—and may only get worse. Time after time, we’ve seen practically zero accountability for police brutality. In the case of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died in the Baltimore Police Department’s custody, two of the six officers on trial for his death were found not guilty of all charges; one’s trial ended in a hung jury, and the highest-ranking officer just opted for trial by judge rather than jury. Local activist group Baltimore Bloc said at the time of one officer’s acquittal, “We do not expect justice for Freddie or for Baltimore to come from a prosecutor’s office or a courtroom.”
That's because insubordination from police is now enabled: In June, the U.S. Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent by ruling that in some cases, evidence of a crime can be used against a defendant even if police obtained it illegally. At the time, Complex spoke to the ACLU’s deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson, who likened the decision to fascism, saying, “This is like the movies from the '30s and '40s looking at countries heading into World War 2 and the old line, ‘Can I have your papers?’”
Institutional attempts to hold police accountable are paper-thin; many have called on departments to require body cameras, but there's been no nationally regulated or consistent implementation. A 2013 study in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology concluded that body cameras cause a “self-awareness effect” which prompts suspects to “cool down” and keeps officers “from reacting with excessive or unnecessary force” since neither wants to “get caught engaging in socially undesirable behavior that may have costly consequences.” But another study of police departments by the National Institute of Justice found that 75 percent did not use body-worn cameras. In Sterling’s case, Louisiana Rep. C. Denise Marcelle told a local broadcaster that the two officers were wearing body cameras, but that both “fell off during the incident.”
While it’s impossible to control officers’ “accidental” body camera loss, the public is conversely and unjustly being penalized for attempts to protect themselves using video surveillance. A federal court in Pennsylvania ruled this February that filming the police without a specific challenge or criticism is not protected by the U.S. Constitution. In short: Studies have found that filming cops is good for the safety of everyone involved, but officers overwhelmingly don’t wear body cameras. Meanwhile, you’re not protected by law if you film the cops for your own protection—and the Supreme Court says it’s okay for cops to break the law to enforce it.
In her ringing dissent to the Supreme Court decision in June, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote:
For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk”— instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them ... By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.
As we mourn Alton Sterling, we must call for police reform on local, state, and federal levels, or we’ll end up in Robinson and Sotomayor's descriptions of a fascist retro-future. We deserve a police force that will protect us—all of us—and we deserve to be citizens of a democracy, not a police state.