The death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has the nation, once again, glued to a graphic, grainy video. This one seems to show police shooting at point-blank range a man they were trying to subdue.
It’s early in the Sterling case but it doesn’t look like the officer needed to shoot. Baton Rouge officials made it clear yesterday they want to avoid the violence that has followed similar incidents and quickly turned the case over to the U.S. Justice Department for investigation.
Incidents of deadly force, with and without videos, seem to come with saddening regularity. Often they involve a white officer and an unarmed black man. This summer marks two years since the deaths that first intensified a national focus on the problem: Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. And Akai Gurley in Brooklyn. Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
Beyond the names we recognize are many we do not. According to a Washington Post database, 505 people have been shot and killed by police officers in the United States thus far in 2016. In many the cases the person killed presented a serious danger. The dangers officers face complicate how they respond to potentially violent suspects. NYPD Officer Brian Moore was killed last year while patrolling in Queens. Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were assassinated in their squad car in Brooklyn in 2014 by a man apparently enraged over police killings. But when civilians kill cops, it’s often clear who is in the wrong. When cops kill civilians, the situation can be murkier.
Nationally and locally, there is a consensus that police culture has to change. Officers do use unneeded force, and can feel that they are above the law on and off-duty. We saw that in Brooklyn on Monday when an off-duty NYPD officer killed a man who was punching him at a red light, an apparent road-rage confrontation. That probe has been taken over by the state attorney general.
We want officers to be safe, but we want civilians to be safe, too. Our nation is now regularly transfixed and sickened by videos of officers killing people who presented no imminent danger. Change can come and it must come.