How response to Alton Sterling shooting is different – and maybe the same

Following the shooting of a black man at the hands of local police, Louisiana's governor called on the Justice Department to investigate. Civil rights advocates say it's window dressing. But others say it could be a sign officials are learning from past mistakes.

Gerald Herbert/AP Photo
Children hold signs reading "Black Lives Matter" outside the Triple S convenience store in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Alton Sterling was shot and killed outside the store where he was selling CDs Tuesday by Baton Rouge police. The U.S. Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Wednesday into the videotaped police killing of Sterling.

A day after a black man was fatally shot by police outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, the governor of Louisiana called on the Justice Department to investigate. It shows both how much the response to police-related violence has changed in the US, criminal analysts say, and how much more needs to change.

A video showing officers pinning Alton Sterling to the ground and then one pulling a gun on him outside a store on the eastern part of the city went viral Tuesday morning. A day later, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division would be leading the probe into the incident – a swifter state response to a police-related death than any the nation has seen over the past two years.

Some civil rights advocates view the move as mere window dressing – a public relations ploy intended to divert the public’s attention from issues of racial injustice and suppress rioting and rebellion. They question the Justice Department’s ability to conduct an unbiased investigation of police officers involved in controversial killings.

But others say it could be a sign that leaders are learning from past mistakes and showing a more seasoned understanding of what it takes to rebuild lost trust and hold law enforcement accountable for its actions.

“What it indicates is we’re in the middle of what may be a transformation in the relationship between citizens and the police department in matters of transparency and accountability,” says Jody Armour, a professor of law who specializes in criminal and racial justice at the University of Southern California.

“The governor’s proactive steps in this case may be a part of that new pattern that’s emerging in which law enforcement leaders and political leaders realize it’s more important to get in front of a story rather than play catch-up,” he says. “This suggests that a difference is being made.”

'It is who Louisiana is'

Early Tuesday morning, Baton Rouge police responded to a call from someone who reported that a black man selling CDs and wearing a red shirt threatened him with a gun outside a convenience store.

The video of the incident, which bystanders captured on a cellphone camera, showed two police officers wrestling Mr. Sterling to the ground. One of the officers then pulled out a gun, which he appeared to hold above Sterling’s chest.

The local coroner later reported that Sterling died of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back, according to The New York Times.

The Baton Rouge police department immediately suspended the two officers involved, according to a statement.

Some civil rights advocates hesitate to put much weight on the quick response from local and state officials.

“It’s important that we have outside agencies coming in to investigate,” says Melina Abdullah, a Los Angeles-based organizer with Black Lives Matter whose family is from Louisiana. “The force that conducted the murder should not be the one investigating it. The idea of utilizing the DOJ in that capacity is important.”

She points out, however, that one step forward hardly places Louisiana at the forefront of criminal and racial justice reform. Just weeks ago, she notes, Governor Edwards signed the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill, expanding the state’s hate crime statute to include attacks against law enforcement officers.

“We’re not under any illusions of the progressiveness of Louisiana,” Ms. Abdullah says. “This story of Alton Sterling is the same kind of story my grandfather used to tell. Louisiana is kind of launching a PR campaign that says, ‘This is no longer who Louisiana is.’ But it is who Louisiana is. We need to remember that.”

Others are even more skeptical, saying that the Justice Department’s close ties with local and state law enforcement means it can’t be trusted to independently investigate and prosecute police officers. Nana Gyamfi, attorney and human rights advocate also based in Los Angeles, notes that DOJ investigations rarely lead to a guilty verdict for officers involved in controversial killings of black men and women.

Part of that, she says, has to do with a culture that venerates law enforcement and has a history of vilifying the black community.

“Prosecutors are ill-prepared to pursue these cases where black people are killed at the hands of police,” she says. “They’re not used to speaking up on behalf of black people and speaking up against police crimes.”

In Baton Rouge, some also suggest that the wide circulation of the video – a graphic 40-second recording – is the only reason that the incident is receiving any real attention.

“The politicians and law enforcement have no choice but to address it – it's shining a mega watt on Baton Rouge,” says Donney Rose, a local activist. The swift response, he says, “is really based on the fact that this is world news. It would be irresponsible for [government] to act unresponsive. Our politicians and law enforcement … are trying to negate a negative light being shown on the city.

“But it's too late for that."

Lessons learned

Still, some see officials’ response to Sterling’s death as early signs of progress – a budding understanding that indifference and inaction towards police-related violence comes with real consequences for a city’s public image as well as its safety and security.

“It’s a prudent step to restore trust and confidence in the investigation process,” says Professor Armour at USC. “A couple years ago it might have taken weeks or months to get to this point.”

“The government is taking a quick reaction, trying to minimize any violence or damage that could occur,” adds Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer.

“I think law enforcement [agencies] across the nation are learning lessons. You’re less likely to see a local investigation in and of itself,” and more likely to see outside agencies coming in sooner to avoid the perception of a cover-up, he says.

And just because officials are trying to preserve a positive public image doesn’t mean that no real change can take place, Armour notes.

“It can be good for both the optics of the situation and for substantive justice. There’s no reason that the way things look and the reality behind them can’t overlap,” he says.

Still, the governor’s call for an investigation is just the beginning. The true test of whether or not change is coming is what happens next: How thorough will the investigation be? Will anyone be prosecuted? And will the presence of an independent agency become a fixture in these cases, instead of something that top-ranking officials call for ad hoc?

“The quick nature of the response here – I'm very proud of that,” says State Rep. Edward James II of Baton Rouge. “However, this is just one very small step."

“This is not a witch hunt for police officers by any means, though some defenders characterize it that way,” Armour adds. “It’s a way to make officers’ jobs – some of the most important in our society – more transparent and accountable.

“We give them a badge and a gun. We tell them, ‘You have special license that other people don’t have.’ Along with that license comes responsibilities and certain duties of transparency and accountability. That,” he says, “should be unobjectionable.”

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