Earlier this week, a large segment of Baton Rouge was upset that two white Baton Rouge city police officers were not going to face charges in the 2016 shooting and killing of a black man, Alton Sterling.
The next day, a white man stabbed a police chief and lived to tell about it. He was neither shot nor beaten.
A week prior, the New Iberia Parish sheriff settled a case with relatives of a young black man who allegedly shot himself in the chest while his hands were handcuffed behind his back in a sheriff’s office vehicle.
What are people to think?
Of course, the defenders of the police officers in the Sterling case would say an officer shot a guy who was a felon with a gun on him and who may have been high on drugs. I don’t know if that’s the formula for a death sentence on the street. It’s one thing to have a gun on your person and another to have the gun actually in your hand.
We love our law enforcement officers and first responders. They are brave and take risks we wouldn’t. But it’s the honorable profession of heroes they chose. And, sometimes there are things that a few of them and the courts do that make some people ask: “Say, what?”
The fact that the two Baton Rouge officers were not prosecuted is like saying water is wet or the sun is hot. Law enforcement officers are rarely prosecuted in officer-involved shooting cases and some African-Americans claim the number is almost nil when a black person is on the business end of a police bullet.
That’s debatable, but it does beg investigation.
The confrontation involving BR police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake and Sterling was destined to go wrong from the time the police department got the call about “a man with a gun.” Please remember the call was about a man with a gun.
I have seen three and four police officers show up for a drunk guy yelling while staggering down a street. Yet a call about a person with a gun, and only two police officers show up?
Wouldn’t it have been safer for the law enforcement officers, the community and Sterling for an overwhelming number — maybe five or more officers — to show up to face a man with a gun? Ask the sheriff’s office to send deputies to boost the numbers if need be.
Instead, according to one account, Sterling was confronted and Tasered. Also, Salamoni allegedly placed a gun to Sterling’s head saying he was going to kill him. Is that part of police training?
(This column was completed before the anticipated disciplinary hearing for Salamoni and Lake and the planned release of new video footage from the confrontation between police officers and Sterling.)
A wrestling match involving the officers and Sterling ensued. Again, the officers knew from the call that Sterling had a gun. They took him down, and he was on his back. The officers were on top of Sterling when Lake announced, with surprise, “gun!”
It is never made crystal-clear whether the gun was in Sterling’s hand, whether he was reaching for it or it was just in his pocket. Salamoni, in a video made public, was shown placing his gun near Sterling’s chest and shooting several times.
If Sterling had complied early on, he may not have been shot. I understand that. But not complying does not mean you have to die.
That was proven when the police chief in Turkey Creek was slashed in the face by a man he was attempting to arrest. Yet the attacker was not shot.
Many African-Americans probably feel that had that attacker looked like them, he would now be dead or badly wounded.
Recently, the financial settlement in a lawsuit against the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office reminded folks of a mind-boggling 2014 death of a black man in sheriff’s custody.
Deputies claimed that the man, who was presumably patted down, and whose hands were cuffed behind his back, was able to produce a gun and shoot himself in the chest.
A forensic pathologist said it was possible for the gunshot to be self-inflicted even though the man’s hands were handcuffed behind his back. Say, what?
The Sterling case, no matter the ruling by the attorney general, is worrisome and shows the need for better training and tactics that can diffuse potentially deadly situations. Many African Americans will continue to believe that they aren’t getting a fair shake in police-involved shootings. The Sterling, New Iberia and Turkey Creek cases do make you wonder.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who now writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.