Another black person has been killed by police and there’s nothing more to say
By Donovan X. Ramsey
Here we are again, as if anyone thought we wouldn’t be.
Late Tuesday evening, news broke that yet another black man was killed by law enforcement officers in the United States of America. It happened in Baton Rouge this time. The victim was Alton Sterling. He was a 37-year-old father of five. Now he’s a hashtag.
According to reports, Sterling was selling bootleg CDs in front of a convenience store when police confronted him. Baton Rouge police said officers were sent to the store after receiving a call that a man selling CDs had threatened someone with a gun. What happened after the police arrived will go through all the machinations of this nation’s criminal legal system and media. What’s clear now, however, are the last 45 seconds of Sterling’s life. Clear because a bystander used a camera phone to capture them (Officers claim their body cams fell off during the incident.)
Officers tackled Sterling onto a car then to the ground. “He’s got a gun! Gun!,” one officer says. A gun comes out. Then, “You fucking move, I swear to God.” Another gun, this one pointed at what looks to be Sterling’s chest. Then there’s a flash and several shots. The weapon of which police say Sterling was in possession isn’t visible in the video but the Baton Rouge Police Department says a firearm was recovered from the scene. According to witnesses, the officers involved in the incident pulled it from Sterling’s pocket after he’d been killed.
Here we are again, as if anyone thought we wouldn’t be — as if we’ve done any real work as a nation to prevent or even discourage police officers from killing black people.
I’ve written about the issues surrounding police conduct for more than two years now and have exhausted all of my questions about how we keep arriving at this moment as a nation. I’ve come up with answers:
America is no home for black people:
You see, a part of functioning successfully — that is to say, surviving — as a young, black man in America is not feeling. To feel would mean to be constantly enraged, anxious, naively hopeful, or worse, to feel out of control.And if America demands anything of black people it’s that we be in or under control. The only alternatives are prison and death. Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Mike Brown, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo — all threats, all recent reminders of that. Read more.
Our elected officials must lead on this issue, not equivocate:
As a matter of policy in many places, we are dangerously over-policed. Our interactions with police end in death too often and, far more often than not, there are no consequences for killer cops. That’s the reality of modern American policing, not a supposed cold war between cops and communities. If President Obama can’t bring himself to tell that truth then he shouldn’t say anything at all. Any fruitful conversation on modern American race relations has to be established on a foundation of fact — not polite, equivocating rhetoric that soothes the masses while keeping people of color in the crosshairs. Read more.
Their failure on this issue will have political consequences:
Activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, which sprang up in the aftermath of protests over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., have been challenging the Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over the past few months through direct action and protests at their campaign events. So far, the candidates have responded reluctantly to the prodding, and in ways that show they underestimate the number of voters behind the movement. Read more.
We need better officer training:
The national average of academy training required is just over 600 hours. The bar is much lower in many states, however, particularly in most of the South. Louisiana, for example, requires just 360 hours of training for officer certification. That’s compared to the 1,500 hours it requires for barber certification. On the other hand, Washington D.C. requires 1,120 hours of police academy training — more than any other state. Read more.
And cops need better mental health screening and care:
It took a few decades and outrage over the beating of Rodney King in 1991 for police departments around the country to finally take up that recommendation and incorporate psychological assessment into their hiring processes. Still, tests are not required in every state today and, in fact, the American Psychological Association is currently in the process of deciding on guidelines for the psychological assessment of police officers. Read more.
Officers must be disciplined for misconduct:
“Community policing” sounds good. As proposed, it will probably be more politically expedient than substantive change in policy, but we cannot fix our deadly system of policing without addressing officer discipline. There must be measures in place to make cops think twice about pulling the trigger. It’s a matter of accountability, but also of life and death. Read more.
The federal government has to take tracking police behavior seriously:
Experts say given the nature of the phenomenon and the difficulty of measuring it accurately, it’s not likely we’ll have one any time soon. Yet recent developments, including new proposed legislation and a White House initiative, could make tracking police violence a whole lot easier. Read more.
And step up efforts to do something about police conduct:
The successful use of consent decrees by the DOJ supports the idea that comprehensive federal oversight of the nation’s police can improve outcomes. But what we’ve ended up instead with is a piecemeal, reactionary system for police accountability that can barely keep up with, let alone disrupt, the warrior cop culture that has poisoned so many departments with its misconduct and brutality. Read more.
Police departments can improve; they’ve done it before:
In the years since Katrina, though, the Justice Department has launched investigations into numerous other police departments. The dysfunction of the New Orleans police began to look less like an exception, and more like an example of widespread issues that happened to be noticed and addressed earlier in New Orleans than elsewhere. Ironically, the depth of the department’s dysfunction has set it up to be a model for reform. As it continues to improve almost every area of its operation, it is becoming an example for other troubled police forces seeking to clean up their own acts. Read more.
But extrajudicial killings of black people are deeply embedded in American culture:
Again, it’s estimated that two or three blacks were lynched each week in the American South during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Compare that to conservative reports from the FBI that, in the seven years between 2005 and 2012, a white officer used deadly force against a black person almost two times every week. A deeper analysis by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that, in just 2012, police killed more than 313 black people — one every 28 hours. MXGM also found that 44% of those killed were unarmed and 43% were not in the process of of committing a crime, but stopped by police for “suspicious activity.” Read more.
So is white apathy:
Whites rate the nation’s police force among the three institutions in our country that inspire the most confidence, behind only the military and small business,according to a survey by Gallup. In fact, white Americans admire the police more than they do clergy. With that in mind, it should be no surprise then that 70 percent of white Americans say they can imagine a situation in which they would approve of a police officer striking a citizen. Nearly the same share approve of police hitting suspects trying to escape from custody. Read more.
Until we deal with racism in our society and system of policing, nothing will change:
Ultimately, the contrast between the reality of black crime and this nation’s perception of it reveals just how invested in the myth of the Nigger America actually is. And, as protesters push forward and leaders federal and local circle around “community policing” as reform, Baldwin’s question will only become more urgent. White Americans of good conscience will have to confront their boogeyman head on. Because the truth is that there can be no “community policing” in black communities without engaging the community, without engaging black people and our distortion in the American imagination. Read more.
Those are my answers. Other people have more, but what are we prepared to do to stop the extrajudicial police killings of black people? What we’ve done hasn’t worked. Alton Sterling was the 505th person fatally shot by police in 2016. One hundred and twenty-two of those people were black. What are we prepared to do? There is nothing more to say.
Watch Alton Sterling’s family speak out after his killing: