The man I will write about was tall and dark and smiled with gold teeth. He sold CDs in front of a convenience store. He may have had a good sense of humor. The store owner said they traded good-natured barbs before he was killed.
A woman who cared for him spoke at a press conference, working to keep her composure. Her inconsolable son consoled her, resting his arm on her shoulder. Mr. Sterling sold CDs, she said, to take care of his family. His five kids, the oldest of whom is 15, “depended upon their daddy on a daily basis.” Hearing his mother struggle through her remarks, the son fell into the kind of lament we who attend too many funerals are all too familiar with. He called in vain for his father—Alton Sterling, the family man.
The response was predictable. A call for peace from the governor, saying, “Violence and destruction of property is not an answer.” A call to consider “black on black crime” from the supporters of blue lives. A reminder from the literati that Chicago is deadly, but Baton Rouge is even deadlier. The not so peculiar silence of the NRA, with a nod to the paradox—a gun in Alton’s pocket made him more threatening to the police than he already was, even in an open carry state. A call to honor “black bodies,” as if the body is the only part of a man that is murdered. Some discussion of media bias.
What strikes me in all of this is how much we know about Mr. Sterling—his children loved him; he had legal troubles; his aunt called him a “gentle giant”—and how little we know about the officers who killed him.
Do they have criminal histories like the torturer John Burge or the dozens of un-named officers who helped him beat, nearly kill, and coerce false confessions from hundreds of black boys and men over the course of two full decades? The victims’ claims were at first dismissed. They were, after all, poor black men who confessed to crimes, albeit after enduring rape with broom sticks, electric shock to the testicles, and other unknown horrors of the interrogation room for hours to days at a time, all without their lawyers, their parents, or any hope for relief.
Were they drunk when they killed Mr. Sterling like Officer Anthony Abatte, who drunk dialed his friends after assaulting his bartender Karolina Obrycka? It is unusual for the public to see the toxicology report of an offending officer, though Mr. Sterling’s toxicology report is likely to be released following tradition.
Do the officers have a history of domestic violence like neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who just months after his arrest for allegedly using a gun to threaten his girlfriend spuriously claimed the Smithsonian offered to purchase the weapon he used to kill Trayvon Martin? Are they rapists like Officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who used his position to coerce black women in legal trouble, including at least one grandmother, into performing sexual acts? Have they been reprimanded for their “emotional instability” like Tim Loehman, the man who killed Tamir Rice, saying he thought the 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun was a 20-year-old man with a real one?
Have they ever killed the wrong person like Officer Dante Servin, who, shooting from his car window into a group, “accidentally” shot Rekia Boyd in the head? Did they ever commit an “accidental killing” like Officer Joseph Weekley, who shot Aiyana Stanley-Jones, killing the sleeping seven-year-old Detroit resident during a no-knock raid? Have they ever raided the wrong house, like the SWAT team members who shot and killed Jose Guerena, unloading 22 rounds into his body, his wife and child hiding in a closet?
One might ask, were the police that killed Mr. Sterling involved in the wrongful arrest, prosecution and conviction of any one of the 1,832 people who were exonerated since 1989, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown Americans. Were they apart of the millions of unwarranted police stops for walking, driving or standing while black? The research on “stop, question and frisk” in New York City shows that the people stopped were innocent in 9 out of 10 cases. Adding insult to injury, over half were black and nearly a third were Latino, but whites were most likely to have broken laws.
It is unusual for an officer involved in any of these life threatening, and all too often life ending situations, to be convicted of or even charged with a crime. They are not often held accountable for their actions. They do not typically issue apologies. They have no responsibility in raising the children of the men and women they kill. They do not have to share in the expenses of the families left to fend for themselves. They do not cover the costs of funerals. They do not pay for psychological services to help families cope with the death of their parent, child, or partner whose executions are looped on digital video feeds. The families face a public waiting in the wings to pontificate about the extent to which the victim was “no angel,” their livelihood in the hands of a district attorney to determine how, not if, the killings were justified, based solely on a jury’s ability to sympathize with the officer (not the victim). After all, police have a dangerous job. They deal with dangerous black criminals all the time. How can they tell them apart? They have a right to go home to their families, like everybody else!
Many officers have not lost one full day’s wage in the wake of these killings, though some have complained that they’ve lost sleep. These cases made the news, which is why we know about them. How many more have not?
Why do we pretend like the police and the courts, the juries and the elected officials who refuse to prosecute police officers, aren’t comprised of people with all the same biases that everyone else has? Even when there’s video. Even when there are two videos. If they indeed have biases, which the research on implicit bias makes clear, then why do we care whether or not police officers “fear for their lives.” Toni Morrison raises a similar question, asking, “[Why] are they so afraid?”
Why would anyone, under these conditions, trust the criminal justice system? If police kill innocent black and brown people and never face charges when they do, or if an officer can simply make a mistake, kill someone, and life goes on, why wouldn’t the police be the object of every black child’s fear? Why wouldn’t every single black person stopped by the police under any circumstance fear for their life? Why would they comply when an officer tells them to lie on their faces in the street as they overwhelm and restrain them? What rights do people have in any of these circumstances? How can one exercise those rights from the grave? Given everything we know, why do we bring up gang violence when police kill black civilians?
I’m a social scientist who studies crime, so I care deeply about these things. But if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that some people see what they want to see. Facts, for many in power, matter very little. However, some facts cannot be ignored. There is no Ferguson effect. Black on black crime is not a thing. Over 1,800 people have been exonerated after spending, on average, nine years in prison. And two men have been killed by the police in the time that it took me to write this article.