5 policy changes needed in the wake of the Alton Sterling case

Prosecutors should faithfully execute the law and work toward creating a society where “equal justice under law” is more than a phrase etched outside our Supreme Court.

Yet, several blocks from the nation’s highest court, the Department of Justice announced that justice again would not apply when it comes to enforcing the rights of black victims who are murdered by the police.

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On July 5, 2016, Sterling was shot and killed by two Baton Rouge police officers. The DOJ will not be filing charges against the two police officers who murdered Sterling. One of the officers involved in the shooting had been on the job for only three years, yet he had already been involved in another shooting of a black man during his short time as a police officer. 

 

That previous shooting led to an administrative leave, and soon after Sterling became his second victim. 

The other police officer was on the force for four years. Shortly after the shooting, his father-in-law complained that “the black people” were unjustifiably politicizing Sterling’s death, expressing little regard for the loss of black life.

Before killing him, one of the officers yelled to Sterling, “I’ll kill you, bitch.”

By this point, the officers had already Tasered Sterling twice, and they held him down and straddled him.

Despite restraining him in this manner, one of the officers still shot him, firing multiple shots at close range.

Sterling was a 37-year-old black man, who sold C.D.’s outside a convenience store to make ends meet. He took his last breaths outside this convenience shop. 

There’s no remedy for this loss of life. Sterling was the father of five children, and his children will spend the rest of their lives knowing that the police who should have been making their community safer took their father away from them. His children, aunts, siblings, community, and city all mourn his death.

And, the only penalty for these police officers’ gross disregard for human life has been administrative leave. These officers treated Sterling worse than an animal. 

They flung his body to the ground, yelled obscenities at him, and then murdered him. And the highest law enforcement official in this country has determined that his life did not warrant vindication within the federal criminal justice system.

This is unsurprising because Attorney General Jeff Session has repeatedly expressed his unwillingness to hold police departments accountable for violating civil rights. He has stated that federal consent decrees get in the way and prevent police officers from getting the job done.

However, respecting and enforcing civil rights are critical to achieving the highest ideals of this country. They are not inconveniences in the implementation of law and order. They are the law in this country.

And they reflect an order in this world that respects the dignity of everyone and ensures that even the government cannot take our rights away from us.

The intent standard in the federal statute, 18 U.S.C. 242,  which allows the Department of Justice to bring criminal charges against police officers who violate civil rights is very strict and requires proof that the police officers acted willfully to violate the civil rights of the victim.

Nevertheless, the police officers’ conduct in this situation was inexcusable and demonstrates a disregard for human life.

There are several lessons to be learned from the outcome in this case and potential policy solutions for ensuring that police officers are held accountable when they murder people.

  1. Change the Standard. Legislatures should pass legislation that limits a police officer’s ability to invoke qualified immunity against charges of excessive force, and Congress should amend the state of mind required to hold a police officer under 18 U.S.C. 242 from “willful” to “reckless.” State legislatures should pass legislation to promote accountability in policing by mandating standards for police union contracts that foster police compliance with civil and human rights standards.
  2. Screen for Implicit Bias and Aggression.  State legislatures should pass legislation that requires that law enforcement candidates are screened for racial animus and implicit biases. Candidates for police officer positions should also be required to pass psychological testing that screens out candidates who display a proclivity for aggression and violence.
  3. Focus on Collaborative Approaches to Policing. Police departments should rely upon collaborative approaches that respect the dignity of individuals within the community; focus on problem-solving; and are generally more community-centered and build community trust. Tactics might include relying upon the use of structural and environment strategies to reduce crimes, such as adding lighting in hotspot areas, securing abandoned buildings, and building partnerships with community members to address specific crimes. The widespread and systematic use of increasing police-civilian encounters through stop, frisk, and questioning, misdemeanor arrests, tickets, and summonses for less serious offenses should be prohibited.
  4. Encourage Consistent Monitoring and Screening. Police departments should create early warning systems for detecting patterns of behavior, such as complaints filed against officers or personal hardships like divorce, which indicate potential vulnerabilities for the officer and the department. The primary purpose of such systems is not to punish but to provide counseling to officers to reduce their level of risk as well risk to residents and communities.
  5. Reject Special Treatment Laws. In a time when the public is interested in more accountable and responsible policing, legislatures are trying to pass laws enhanced penalty laws for offenses committed against police officers. Enhanced penalty laws are often described as “hate crime” statutes, which were originally intended to protect those who have experienced a “long legacy of violence, intimidation, and discrimination.” Using these laws, which are intended to protect people against discrimination because of their skin color, faith, LGBTQ status, or the fact that they have a disability, will only drive a wedge between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.

I. India Thusi is the associate counsel for The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab. She has litigated cases on policing and structural inequality in the criminal justice system. Follow her on Twitter @inGerri, and the Opportunity Agenda @oppagenda.


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