The One Step that Police Could Have Taken to Save Two Black Lives in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis

Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile of Minneapolis were shot by officers in incidents that originated as routine police matters. Neither survived his encounte.

There was one simple, well-known policing technique that could have saved both men, had it been used.

This is not an indictment of police officers, whom I support, but of policing methods that impose an unnecessarily confrontational and militaristic tone to a law enforcement function and a failure of training.

The police are peace officers, not war officers. Stop militarizing them.

I do not believe for a second that any police officer wants to kill a civilian, but one would be remiss to not acknowledge that it happens with alarming frequency. Nearly three civilians are killed per day by police in America.  It goes without saying that if the Sterling and Castile incidents had been handled differently, that the outrage that erupted when the videos became known would not have happened. The protests in Dallas would not have happened, and the shootings in Dallas would not have happened.  Seven deaths and a shaken nation are the result of easily remedied police practices. Ironically, the police in Dallas are among the leaders in Community Policing.

There were basic steps the police could have taken to de-escalate the two situations.

These encounters are not isolated incidents.  Its a sad commentary that the casual reader will know exactly what I mean when I mention the names of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and now Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  The reader will remember what happened in New York, Cleveland, Ferguson, Waller County, Texas and now St. Paul and Baton Rouge. These encounters are not new or isolated.  What is new: evidence in the form of video.  But as one friend in law enforcement reminds: evidence is not proof. That said, there were basic steps that the police could have taken to change the fatal course of the two events.

Until we see all the video, and hear all the eyewitness testimony, we cannot know with any certainty exactly what happened.

What we suspect upon closer examination of both events from last week is that neither fatal outcome had to happen. Both tragic situations could have been avoided with the use of a "tactical pause".

A tactical pause is a temporary interruption of ongoing police activity so that the officer can step back, evaluate the situation and decide upon the best tool to use to address new or different conditions. In this manner, the officer can respond, rather than react to the situation as it then exists.

In both incidents, Sterling and Castile, a tactical pause could have saved the life of the citizen.

In Castile's case, the new information was that the driver had a gun. In Sterling's case, the new information was that the taser did not work.  Once those different conditions were known to the officers, they could have taken a tactical pause and decided upon a new course of action. Instead, reactions took over and one officer shot Castile, and two others jumped on Sterling, both with fatal results.

This is admittedly Monday morning quarterbacking at its finest.  But how many times do we have to be here, mourning victims of seeming overreach by police officers? How many times do we have to see families grieving to not sit back and evaluate the situation and see whether we can envision an alternate scenario?

So,  lets look first at what happened, and see how it might be avoided next time.

Philando Castile was pulled over for an alleged broken tail light in suburban Minneapolis. The officer also suspected the driver may have been involved in an unsolved burglary.

The police apparently used a "broken tail light" to pull over Philando Castile to investigate a burglary.

A traffic stop is characterized by unequal power between the officer and the motorist.  The officer is trained to be controlling and authoritarian, and the motorist is immediately on the defensive. The officer is frequently accusational, and physically looks down on the driver, amplifying his situational power.  Its an adversary situation from the start.  Officers often bark commands and expect immediate and unquestioning compliance from a distressed citizen. Blacks believe they are unfairly singled out and whether one agrees or not, perception is reality. So neither the police officer nor the driver are acting "normally".

Modern policing is characterized by an aggressive style in which the officer is trained to immediately take control of the situation and put the civilian at a situational disadvantage.

This aggressive style immediately ratchets up the confrontation level to a "10" in no time flat.  Both sides, the officer and the civilian, take on familiar roles.  The officer demands immediate response, often even before the civilian can process the demands. This is what likely occurred in the case of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old Cleveland boy playing with a toy pellet gun who had less than two seconds to react to arriving officers before he was shot and killed. (See video below).

Blacks, because of the publicity surrounding recent events, often dread traffic stops as they are perceived to be life-threatening situations. For better or worse, "Black Lives Matter" publicizes this fear and gives it legitimacy.

According to the girlfriend of Philando Castile, sitting in the passenger seat, the officer asked to see identification.  According to her, Castile told the officer he had a weapon, which he had a legal right to possess,as well as a concealed carry permit. If this happened, and we have no objective proof it did at this point, this disclosure was smart, as it indicated an awareness of the tension of the situation. The disclosure was designed to put the officer at ease in the event the weapon would be discovered in a search.

Unfortunately, the disclosure appears to have been wrongly construed by the officer, who shot Castile, claiming he thought Castile was going for his gun.

The officer appeared confused on the audio recorded by the girlfriend.  The girlfriend can be heard calmly explaining her version of the events that contradicts the rushed explanation of the officer.  Unfortunately, there is no body camera video, and the squad car's dashcam video may not have picked up the encounter because of where the squad car was parked.  However, the officer's shooting could have been avoided with a tactical pause.

Once the officer learned the motorist had a gun, the officer should have taken a tactical pause. First, step back. Second, re-evaluate based on the new information, that the driver had a gun. Third, respond rather than react.

Proper training would suggest that once the officer knew of the presence of a legal gun, that he should have taken a tactical pause and stepped back from confrontation. He could have then evaluated the best next step.  He apparently reacted to the movement of the driver's hand and arm, and shot several times.  Later judges and juries will decide whether this was appropriate, but it didn't have to happen.

Why did he shoot? Police officers are worried about their own personal safety when encountering civilians, just as civilians are worried about their personal safety when dealing with the police. Thus, the judgment of each in stressful situations can be clouded by emotion.  Training can help the police manage this.

There are several things the officer could have done upon learning the driver had a gun.  A tactical stop would have given him time to pause and reflect, and decide on a new strategy and respond rather than react. For example, the officer could have asked Castile to put his hands on the wheel.  He could have engaged his nearby partner to help. He could have safely had the motorist exit the car, leaving the gun in his pocket until he could be disarmed.  He could have asked the motorist to safely hand him the weapon.  He could have asked the motorist to leave the gun in plain sight on the seat as he exited the vehicle. All of these alternatives should have been explored in training before the officer was allowed to make traffic stops.

The officer is in control of the traffic stop. If it gets out of hand, its the responsibility of the officer. If the officer's training is poor and he does not have the skills to properly react to predictable situations, he should not be on that assignment.

In addition, there appears to be confusion over what the motorist was to do.  First, he apparently was asked for identification. But when he tried to get it out, the officer was apparently fixated on the disclosure of the presence of the gun, and assumed, wrongly, that Castile was drawing his gun while seated in a car behind the wheel. The officer fired into the vehicle, striking and killing Castile.

There was no danger to the officer at that point; indeed, the officer instigated the contact.  He should have been trained to proceed in a manner that protected his life, Castile's life, and that of Castile's girlfriend and her 4 year old daughter in the back seat.  It is unusual and dangerous for an officer to fire through the window of a stopped car with other passengers in it.  Nobody appears to have been trying to flee or provoke a confrontation.

How do we know Castile was likely not confrontational? Records show this was at least the 52nd time Castile had been pulled over in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area since 2002. Fifty-two times By then he knew the drill. He knew to inform the officer he had a gun, and he did according to his girlfriend's recording.

A tactical stop could have saved Anton Sterling's life as well.

Anton Sterling was killed by two Baton Rouge police officers who first tased the suspect.  When that did not compel Sterling to comply with the officers, they wrestled the 37-year old to the ground, sticking a gun in his chest and shooting him dead.

The officers, reacting to a report that Sterling had a gun, were shocked!, shocked! to discover that Sterling had a gun. They then shot Sterling to death because of the legal gun they knew he had before they arrived on scene.

But a tactical stop could have saved Sterling.

Once the taser didn't work, the officers could have stepped back.  They could have reevaluated the situation based on the new knowledge that the taser hadn't worked.  They could have then responded rather than reacted.  Neither the officers nor Sterling were in any physical danger at that point.  The officers could have then decided upon a smart strategy to disarm and apprehend Sterling. Instead, they jumped him, one yelled "gun, gun" and shot him.

Once the officer learned the Taser was not working, the officer should have taken a tactical pause. First, step back. Second, re-evaluate based on the new information. Third, respond rather than react.

There did not appear to be a need to immediately take down the suspect at that point.  As in the Eric Garner NY "loose cigarette seller" situation, it appears that the officers may have prematurely, and fatally, escalated the confrontation. The officers, for their part, knew he had a gun, but there did not appear to be any immediate need to subdue him.  It appears Sterling had a second amendment right to carry the gun, and he was not threatening anyone when the officers arrived.

Team tackling a larger man that the officers knew had a gun appears to be poor planning and dangerous. Guns can fire or misfire, putting both the officers and the civilian at risk.  The officers knew the suspect had a gun because the 911 report was that the suspect had threatened another with the gun. While the officers used a taser, it did not appear to be effective. When it didn't work, they were not committed to gang tackling. They could have disengaged before jumping on the civilian.  Training is the key, and it is difficult to believe that physical force was the only alternative when they knew of the presence of a gun.

There did not appear to be an attempt to engage the CD Seller verbally to persuade him to stand down, although the officers may have done so.  That of course would be shown in the now-missing storeowner video.

Aggressive policing is not the norm in largely white, suburban areas.

In largely white, suburban areas, a problem solving approach is usually utilized by modern police departments.  The officers find out the facts, talk to both sides if there's a complainant, and then reason with the two sides to defuse the situation.  Arrest who you will, but nobody's personal safety is put at risk.  While this problem solving approach is also used in most urban areas, that's not what we see on the videos in question.  One of the complaints of black lives matter is that officers act in a less confrontational manner when dealing with whites, who are apparently not perceived as threatening to the officer's safety or as confrontational in return.

Dallas has become a model of community policing. Here is what they did to solve the problem.

As reported in
, Dallas has reformed its police force from a less militaristic model.  Steps they took include:
  1. The department committed itself to transparency.
  2. They developed a new foot pursuit policy that emphasized de-escalation.
  3. Officers are slated to take lethal force training every two months instead of every two years.
  4. They published years of statistics for transparendcy and accountability.
  5. The use of body cameras used by officers increased.
  6. Poor performing police officers were fired.
  7. Traffic ticket fines were no longer used to augument police budgets and the number of tickets was cut in half.
  8. Other suggestions for enlightened police procedures designed to reduce confrontation include eliminating ticket quotas and unbinding police budgets from fines, penalties, civil forfeitures and assessments, and prohibiting the use of pretext stops.
In a related story,
for Bahamians traveling to America.  Young males are advised to "exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police. Do not be confrontational and cooperate." Similarly,
have issued similar advisories.

That second and third world countries are warning about policing in America shows just how exceptional the US is at this point in time.

Dallas has shown America the way to reform its police.  Its time for the rest of America to do the same.


TAMIR RICE (Cleveland 12 year old with toy gun) The squad car appears at 0.17.

ERIC GARNER (New Yorker selling "loose cigarettes") "I can't breathe" chokehold video.

SANDRA BLAND (Traffic stop, Waller County, Texas)

ALTON STERLING (Baton Rouge Man Selling CD's)

PHILANDO CASTILE (Minnesota Man Pulled Over for Busted Tail light, shot while moving arm)





Cover Photo: By Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA via Wikimedia Commons

Use of photos does not constitute endorsement of this article.