Criminal justice system got it right in decision not to indict Baton Rouge police officers

Criminal justice system got it right in decision not to indict Baton Rouge police officers
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Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry made a highly anticipated statement this morning, exonerating two police officers in the shooting death of Alton Sterling, 37, outside of a Baton Rouge convenience store in July 2016.

The Department of Justice had already conducted an investigation into the actions of Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II. Federal prosecutors announced in June of 2017 that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to support indicting the officers on civil rights charges.

The feds correctly assessed that the officers’ actions were “reasonable under the circumstances” because both officers had initially attempted to subdue Sterling by utilizing several less-than-lethal methods. The employment of deadly force — by Salamoni — was the result of Sterling’s refusal to comply with lawful commands.


It must be noted that the officers had responded to a call from a homeless man who claimed to have been threatened by a man (Sterling) brandishing a weapon.

Results related to Sterling’s toxicology findings were included in the 34-page report released by Landry’s office and indicate that the decedent’s body tested positive for methamphetamine, cocaine, hydrocodone, marijuana and alcohol. Sterling was under the influence of a combination of illegal substances during his fatal encounter with the two police officers.   

Moreover,  the statement delivered by Landry this morning was an affirmation of DOJ’s decision last year. The Louisiana attorney general was unable to conduct a concomitant investigation with the feds as heightened tensions across the nation between police and communities of color had led to protests, officer assassinations, and mutual distrust in the summer of 2016. Therefore, FBI investigators conducted their investigation sans local law enforcement assistance or influence.

This caused Landry and his team to essentially start from scratch.

Today was the culmination of some nine months of independent work. The Sterling family had been dissatisfied with the fed’s decision. They had clung to faint hope that the State of Louisiana would right what they perceived as a “grievous wrong” by armed instruments of the state.

And with this morning’s announcement, the family reacted with predictable anger and disappointment. Sterling’s aunt Veda Washington-Abusaleh was clearly distraught as she lashed out after the decision — “They’re not going to bring charges on anybody. Why would they do that? This is white America.”

You can certainly forgive the impertinent comments from a grieving family member.

Sterling’s attorneys condemned the decision as “biased” and urged the public to hold Landry accountable. And others have, and will continue to take up the refrain.

But is their ire appropriate and properly directed? Exactly what part of the system failed here?

Sterling was under the influence of alcohol and narcotics – a combination that doesn’t typically lead to lucid decision-making. And as a convicted felon, Alton Sterling certainly wasn’t permitted to be in possession of the loaded revolver that police recovered from his pocket.

He was set up by crooked cops, you say?

Quite the intricate scheme to plant evidence on an innocent man. To grasp that, we need to suspend disbelief and assume that the vagrant who phoned in the 911 tip was complicit in the framing as well.

No, tragic as the resulting fatality may be, the deadly and wholly avoidable circumstances were set in motion by an under-the-influence law-breaker who refused to comply with the lawful commands issued by police officers doing their jobs to “protect and serve.”  

The reflexive anti-cop response is already gearing up — just check out Twitter. This final decision not to indict the officers will be viewed through a prism of fervent fanaticism that is the strident belief that people of color simply cannot get justice in 2018 America. Look, our criminal justice system is imperfect. I wrote about sensible criminal justice reform here. I strongly agree that we need repairs and refinements to our sentencing guidelines. We must forever ensure Lady Justice remains attired in a blindfold.

But this earnest desire to seek common ground between law enforcement and the communities they police simply can’t compete with the cacophony of churlish voices who scream “Racism!” after every encounter — deadly or otherwise — between a police officer and a young man of color.

Yes, let’s have that oft referred to “national conversation” about the topic. But let’s frame the discussion with a foundation of facts.

According to the 2010 U.S. census, African-Americans comprise only 13 percent of the population. Yet, according to the FBI’s 2013 Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, African-Americans commit some 52 percent of arrests for all murders and non-negligent manslaughters in the United States.

Police officers are fallible human beings. And I believe that they strive mightily not to allow implicit biases to infect their decision-making and judgments — especially during high stress encounters. But let’s deal in reality — some cops assigned to high-crime inner-city precincts may indeed be influenced by the high rate of criminality therein.

Former FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyGiuliani told investigators it was OK to 'throw a fake' during campaign DOJ watchdog unable to determine if FBI fed Giuliani information ahead of 2016 election Biden sister has book deal, set to publish in April MORE addressed this uncomfortable matter in a widely acclaimed speech he gave at Georgetown University in February 2015 entitled, “Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race.”

“..[P]olice officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel…”

Pretending to ignore these truisms may be politically correct, but it doesn’t serve the pursuit of truth.  

Drug-addled Alton Sterling was in possession of an illegal handgun and resisted arrest, knowing that as a convicted felon, he was facing a lengthy prison sentence. His actions directly led to his death – one that has affected his family and friends and fueled the anti-cop rhetoric and hatred that resulted in three cop assassinations in Baton Rouge.

So, please, let’s stop conflating Alton Sterling with Emmett Till.

The criminal justice system got this one right.

James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John's University and is a leadership consultant at the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at his alma mater, the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter @JamesAGagliano.