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by Peter Moskos

July 6, 2016

Alton Sterling

Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police yesterday. Maybe you've watched the video. I have. And I'll tell you what: Other than a tussle and Sterling being shot, I have no friggin' clue what is going on. And I'm what they call a so-called "expert" on these things. So I really don't know how everybody else has it all figured out.

It might be a bad shooting. Honestly, it looks like a bad shooting. And even if justified, it's probably unnecessary in terms of the style of policing that led up to the shooting. Make note: yet another shooting precipitated by the A) failed use of a Taser, B) cops who don't seem very good at verbal persuasion, and C) cops not doing hands-on well. (Seriously, what's with the solo tackle?)

And yet all that said, I can't get over one pretty important detail: Alton Sterling was armed with a gun. An illegal gun. And cops very clearly saw that gun.

"Why did police have to shoot that man with a gun?!" is a question I am generally inclined to dismiss.

A witness to the shooting (who perhaps should have been doing something if he really was "two feet away") said Sterling had a gun in his pocket, but also that Sterling's hands weren't near that pocket. And I've read that police were called to investigate a complaint that from somebody who objected to having that gun pointed by Mr. Sterling in his direction. Yes, even in Louisiana that is a crime.

We don't what happened before when police approached Sterling. Seems relevant to the discussion. There might be other video. I'd like to know more.

And a big deal seems to made that Sterling was on the ground and shot in the back. To me this is a non-issue (except to note that police did seem to have the advantage). A fighting man, even on his belly, can reach for his gun. What if he does get his gun? Should police have to wait for him to point and pull the trigger before shooting? Shoot the bullet out of the air or something? Or reach under Alton before shooting, to avoid shooting him in the back?

I'm not saying this is a good shooting. I'm saying I don't know what happened. And neither do you.

[Update: the next shooting]


john mosby said...

Good point reminding everyone of the cop getting killed under similar circumstances two weeks ago, just down the road in the NO suburbs. Certainly this was fresh in the minds of the BR officers and should go to state of mind.


Anonymous said...

cops not doing hands-on well. (Seriously, what's with the solo tackle?)

The tackle is often underrated. It was actually done pretty well here. Alton's attention was on the other cop and it got him to the ground quick and took away any chance of him moving around and throwing haymakers.

andrewmoskos said...

If there was a scuffle and an illegal gun in Louisiana, why doesn't the police department say their position faster? Why let the mob define the encounter as unjustified?

Have we learned nothing from that idiot police chief of Furguson?

CollegeCop said...

"If there was a scuffle and an illegal gun in Louisiana, why doesn't the police department say their position faster? Why let the mob define the encounter as unjustified?

Have we learned nothing from that idiot police chief of Furguson?"

Because in general, law enforcement officers are crap at that kind of communicating. While it of course varies from individual to individual, IMO most cops are 'black and white' thinkers who think differently that a large portion of the public. Most cops just need to hear the words "he had a gun", "he was resisting" and it's case closed for them, and they think everyone else is that way too. It's just a part of the personality make-up of most people who seek to and succeed in becoming cops.

I cringe when I think of how bad Law Enforcement Agencies I've been around are when it comes to actually talking to people about how things happen. Many in LE are actually tone deaf when it comes to this stuff.

aNanyMouse said...

Typo alert: "We don't (KNOW?) what happened before...."

@ CollegeCop: Actually, many LEO's I've known aren't all that bad at talking to people. Trouble is, they tend to assume that everyone knows the legal status of the Use of Force Model, stemming from rulings by the Supremes.
PD brass need to insist that Media explain this status.

Unknown said...

Deadly force is not justified unless it is necessary to prevent bad guy from imminently killing/seriously injuring. One of the cops has guy's left arm pinned under his knee. The other cop looks to be straddling him. I don't get why cop who is on top of him cannot restrain his right arm and prevent him from pulling a gun out of that pocket. Cops do not and should not need to wait for bad guy to point and pull the trigger. But, this guy did not even have gun in hand, let alone point or shoot, when he was killed. I can't tell if he was even attempting to grab the gun when he was killed. If he had his hand on a gun, I'd support the cops. As it is, I want cops to keep trying to physically restrain him without killing him.

Suzie said...

Re: John Mosby's comment. The officer killed was David Michel in Harvey in Jefferson Parish. Within 2 weeks, another officer almost lost his gun to suspects. http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2016/07/suspect_tried_to_disarm_deputy.html

Jim Greer said...

Minor point, but what would you recommend I do to help next time I'm two feet away from the arrest of an armed suspect? I'd be inclined to get about twenty feet away, for starters.

Moskos said...

Help the cops if they're getting their ass kicked! Or yes, keep your distance, out of the way.

Adam said...

My thought at this point is that if the officers were struggling to control Sterling's right hand and the gun was in Sterling's right pocket, then that's a very dangerous situation for the officers. If I were in that situation, I'd think Sterling didn't want me to pin down his hand because he wanted to use it to pull the gun out and shoot me. As you ask, how long should the officers continue struggling before they shoot? Do they have to wait until Sterling's fingers are wrapped around the gun? By that point, the cops would be half a second from getting shot themselves. If they were to wait that long, Sterling might well be able to draw and shoot several rounds while getting shot himself. (A lot of laypersons think people are immediately incapacitated when they get shot, but that’s far from true.)

I don't want to go overboard speculating, but here’s my take:

This version of the shooting video has a slow motion segment that is useful. Of the two officers, Salamoni and Lake, I *think* it’s Lake who is wearing the ball cap and Salamoni who is directly on top of Sterling. I’m basing that on their pictures and what little the video shows of their faces (0:04 – 0:05, for example). So I’ll refer to them by those names, recognizing I could have it backwards. Sources say it was Salamoni, and only Salamoni, who fired the shots. Sterling was hit in both the chest and back, according to the coroner’s office.

Using the video, you can see that at about 0:49, Salamoni starts yelling “He’s got a gun!” “Gun!” At about 0:51-0:52, Salamoni draws his gun with his right hand. At about 0:55, you can very clearly see Salamoni use his left hand to try and control Sterling’s right hand, but Sterling is struggling with him. Salamoni yells, “If you fucking move, I swear to God!” And at about 1:02, you can see Salamoni’s hand still flailing down at the right side of Sterling’s body. As best we can see, Sterling’s hand is down there, too, near the pocket with the gun in it. And a moment later, Salamoni shoots several rounds, then rolls off of Sterling, and the camera pans away. It’s hard to see, but when the first shot rings out at about 1:03, you can see that Lake’s gun hand doesn’t appear to move, which tells me he’s not the one shooting. At 1:12, Salamoni yells “Get on the ground!” (which doesn’t make any sense, as Sterling was already on the ground, but whatever). Right after that, Salamoni shoots again – three times. I’m a bit more concerned about the justification for those shots, as we can’t see what’s going on at that time from the video. But if Sterling was shot in both the chest and back, I would guess that the first shots were to his chest (how could they not be?) and some or all of the later shots were to his back. As best I can surmise, Sterling may have rolled onto his right side after the first volley of shots, and Salamoni was alarmed that Sterling was still going for the gun and might turn back and shoot. (As you write, “A fighting man, even on his belly, can reach for his gun. What if he does get his gun?”). After getting shot again, Sterling may have slumped onto his back again, which is the position he’s in when the camera pans back to him. Hopefully there are witnesses (like the people shooting the video) or surveillance footage that will fill in those details.

It’s very hard to dissect this one. I will await more evidence, but with just what we see here, I would not be able to conclude that this shooting was criminally wrong. I certainly would not conclude that it was an execution.

Moskos said...

That's for that, Adam.

Andy D said...

I think from Adam's version of the video and the motion of Sterling's body it seems likely he was reaching for that pocket, and it seems clear that the cop on top is trying to control that hand. As for Peter's comment that the cops were "not doing hands-on well" I agree to this extent: the cop kneeling on Sterling's left arm needed to be the one making more of an effort to control this right, especially as the one on top draws his gun, leaving him only his weak-side hand to stop Sterling's assumed attempt to draw. As for the tackle I have no problem with it; following the Taser attempt and with the suspect's attention elsewhere it wasn't a bad move.

As for "get on the ground" that is a stress reaction when your brain is no longer thinking and you are panicking--you do EXACTLY as you have done is a thousand half-speed pretend training scenarios. They always have you vocalize. Watch the Kyle Dinkheller killing. He is telling the suspect to come to him, then when he is charged and strikes the driver with his baton he yells "get bacl!" You know why? because in baton training the always had us yell "GET BACK!" when we made a strike. Instead he should have been verbalizing for him to get on the ground but he gave the memorized line.

The shots after the first set are understandable from the perspective of the cop doing the shooting--laying on the ground unable to see clearly. This shooting seems OK to me; ugly, certainly undesirable, but justifiable legally.

Unknown said...

From the perspective of -- it will be hard to show a set of facts, even given the perceived armed robbery suspect angle, where the Castile shooting is both legal and moral -- I cannot fathom the controversy over the Sterling shooting. I watched the original video once and clearly saw the officer at Sterling's feet struggle to control his right hand. With a gun in the pocket, the statements made by the officers during the incident, and the facts leading up to the encounter, this one seems legally and morally justified.

Also, why the hate on the tackle? Assuming reasonable PC for arrest and taser (which you have expressed distaste for) having failed, what else should they have done? Picking a guy up and dumping him on his head hasn't failed me in ten years. It didn't fail here either, the officer's inability to take the right hand out of play did. Mr Loury's assertion that one cop should have gone one on one while the other stood back and did... something that didn't already work when they were both standing back merely shows the lack of understanding of actual non-Hollywood force by most everyone. I tell my non-cop associates that when a plane crashes, I can look at that incident and say, "wow, something went wrong there", but as a non-pilot what I cannot do is say why the bad thing happened. Was it a terrorist action? A drunk pilot? Pilot negligence? Was it a Top Gun "backwash" non-avoidable crash? I need to rely on professionals for their interpretation.

This all leads to tonight after roll call where we were encouraged by our precinct commander to be aggressive and look to make arrests because management "has your back" one officer grumbled sotto voce that we'd have to be crazy to be proactive in a world where the President thinks there is a victim when officers shoot said victim after being called to confront a subject having threatened someone with a handgun, find a felon illegally possessing a handgun who then resists arrest. In the parlance of the people, fuck that shit.

Phaedrus said...

I have no law enforcement experience, so feel free to correct me on anything here. My main question with the Sterling shooting revolves around the entire encounter. From what we know, these officers were responding to a complaint of an armed man who threatened someone.

I just don't see how it could possibly be a good idea for police officers to be that physically close to a man they believe to be armed. Wouldn't it make more sense to address an armed man from afar, command him to put his gun on the ground very slowly and then get up closer to him? It seems the danger to both the officers and the citizen are amped up exponentially by the closeness of the encounter.

Of course maybe this all happened, but it seems doubtful.

This is what often frustrates me about those who defend certain shootings. I can agree that in the exact moment the officer shot Sterling he may have honestly felt himself and his partner to be in a life threatening situation. But it often seems like it's the officers who created the life threatening situation by escalating rather than de-escalating. That when challenged in any way at all, many officers immediately resort to asserting their dominance over a situation rather that figuring out a way to keep things calm.

So yes sometimes you can agree an officer legitimately responded to a dangerous situation with gunfire but is that really OK if the dangerous situation was created by the officer in the first place? And then when that happens a police representative has a press conference and says "we believe our officer followed all my of our standard policies and procedures." And I can't help but say, "if your policies end up in a dead man, maybe they need a rewrite."

I apologize if this is misinformed or uninformed. I don't mean to be inflammatory I'm just describing my reactions to some of these shootings. And back to Sterling, those who are more informed, can you perhaps help me understand more why the close encounter seen on the video is the best way to handle that situation or if you would recommend officers stay further away and disarm the man from afar instead?

Thanks in advance for any responses.

Andy D said...

WE can always second guess how the officers get to the position where deadly force is used. The Supreme Court has been careful NOT to do so, and many in the police "reform" movement DO want us second guessing. It is an impossible task however. Consider this: there was a REPORT of an armed man. He didn't have a gun in his hand when they got there. We don't have video from anything before the attempted use of a Taser. While yes, theoretically they COULD have pulled up, taken cover and ordered him down at gunpoint. What happens if he doesn't comply? You can't shoot him. At some point you will have to move in and attempt to gain compliance some other way. I'm not sure what led to the (attempted) Taser deployment. But if we are second-guessing every move made, why not second guess whether they even got out of their cars? They pull up, don't see a gun, and leave. "Complaint Unfounded!" If you second guess every step taken in arriving at the point where the force is used, you end up with officers totally petrified. Why even engage at all? Any step can be a mis-step in hindsight. That is why the USC has always evaluated force using the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time that the force is used.

Phaedrus said...

Reply very much appreciated. I agree with you. I wonder if you or anyone else could describe what the traIning is for a situation like this. if there is I would love to hear what if is.

It sounds like you agree that addressing him from afar might have been a good idea. Just wondering if that is standard training for a suspected armed man or not. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

"Man with gun" calls, where no one has been shot are relatively common where I work. We're trained to arrive out of sight if possible, get eyes on from a distance (a block is about as far as is reasonable) with cover and observe to figure out what is going on. Is there a gun? Something that might be a gun? No gun or gun-like object? What is the guy doing? Is he threatening anyone now? Waving the gun around? Being generally aggressive in another manner? Is he standing there selling CDs?

If you see a guy in the described location matching the suspect description but he has no gun or gun-like object and he is just hanging out what do we want our police to do? As Andy asks, should they just drive on having seen nothing suspicious? I assert that the primary role of patrol officers is to go deal with the scary/suspicious situation.

If you agree that police need to investigate that person, maybe you try to make phone contact directly with the caller to confirm the guy you are looking at is the guy the caller called about. The problem here is that most sane people leave after being scared by something, so they usually aren't in a position to confirm. It does give the opportunity to get a description directly as opposed to running it through the call-taker to dispatcher to officer game of telephone.

If you now believe the guy you see is the guy reportedly threatening with a gun, but you see no gun and no threats right now what do you do? Andy is right that if you go whole hog and start pointing guns and giving orders, you can't shoot if he does nothing but tell you to pound sand, and now you have a gun in your hand. I work in a sizeable metropolitan city, if I felt the threat tangible, I would ideally approach with four officers: one with a rifle, one with a less lethal (bean bag) shotgun or a taser, two for going hands on. As the approach is made, commands are given, if he makes a move for a pocket, the rifle officer makes a decision and possibly shoots. If he just tells you to pound sand but doesn't make aggressive moves, this is where the talking starts, maybe the bean bag/taser is deployed to try and get compliance, but that's hardly a guaranteed success and can make matters worse. The inevitable question of "how much compliance is enough" is now in play. Additionally how far away should you be? Is there traffic noise? Construction or other noise? Does the officer have a good command voice that can project? Does the subject have a command voice that can project? You might need to get pretty close to have a meaningful exchange.

If you only have two officers for this like many police agencies maybe you go with one on tazer/bean bag if those tools are available and one as lethal but the gun is not drawn? Sometimes the presence of tools such as rifles, shotguns, or tasers exacerbate the subject's mood and are more detrimental than just approaching. Plus long guns take you out of the hands on business. This is not input-output function box stuff.

Unknown said...

There is also the risk of him running. The farther away you are when you verbally engage the subject, the more likely he is to run because he has a head start. If he takes off and runs, now things have just gotten more complicated and significantly more dangerous. If he runs, you can and probably should chase, but that gets you into an entirely new situation where tactics get really muddy.

Personally, I'm a big guy and "look the part" of a cop. In a situation where no gun was seen and the subject is just hanging out, I find that two or three of us confidently strolling in around a corner (or coming in slightly hot in the car) and engaging the subject is most effective while being least intrusive. Get on the subject before he can process we are there or formulate a defense plan, and talk him into/coerce him into letting me pat him down. This tactic is not a valid option for a lot of cops though.

Of course it's best (but admittedly not always possible) if you already know the guy because you know the players and characters in your beat. Then you can make a much more informed decision and use that built relationship to make contact more safely.

Where Baton Rouge PD has messed up is that they should have body cam footage of what led up to the encounter. The store security system would also have produced some images if not audio. They should have summarized the events leading up to the start of the cell phone video if not released the videos themselves, but they haven't, and they lost control of the narrative. How is this still happening to police agencies in mid-2016?

Phaedrus said...

"If you see a guy in the described location matching the suspect description but he has no gun or gun-like object and he is just hanging out what do we want our police to do?"

Again speaking from zero expertise so please feel free to tell me my thoughts are mistaken if you believe so, but I don't see why the subject can't still be addressed from afar.

"Sir, we've received a report of an armed man. You fit the man's description, so we are required to investigate. Do you haven any weapons on you?"

If he says yes maybe you'd say, "We'd like to come to you, search you, and remove any weapons you may have so we can speak to you. You are not under arrest, but for your safety and ours can you please raise your hands in the air so we can see them and allow us to approach?"

Or maybe it's even better to ask him to remove his weapon very slowly, place it on the ground and kick it away? Obviously is the man is acting strangely this would be bad idea!

Of course you may not get cooperation for this, but it still seems to me from far away you can pull out your weapon and inform him authoritatively that he is creating a dangerous situation, and for his safety he needs to cooperate. Etc etc.

Of course he may run, but I think accepting the risk of someone running is better than increasing the risk of an officer or subject being killed in a close encounter.

Most police agencies forbid high speed chases for safety reasons too. Fleeing is a crime. You can get him later. I think for both officer and subject sake, keeping distance until cooperation is ensured when you believe a subject may be armed seems like a decent option for all around.

If you had more than two officers a close approach would seems safer. But two officers on one subject seems inherently risky for all parties.

Thanks for indulging my chatter. I again welcome any corrections.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.