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. On Wednesday, Baton Rouge officials made it clear 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, and often involve a white officer and an unarmed black man. It is nearly two years since the deaths that first intensified a national focus on the problem: Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island. Akai Gurley in Brooklyn. Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
Beyond the names we recognize are hundreds and thousands 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 of the cases the person killed presented a serious danger. The dangers officers face add to the complexity of how they respond to potentially violent suspects, as Long Islanders know. Officer Brian Moore, who grew up in Massapequa and joined the NYPD, was shot to death last year while patrolling in Queens by a man with a criminal record. Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were assassinated in their squad car in Brooklyn in 2014 by a man apparently enraged over police killings of unarmed civilians. But when civilians kill cops, it is usually clear who is in the wrong. When cops kill civilians, the situation can be much murkier.
Nationally and locally, there is a consensus that police culture has to change. From new approaches to training to how investigations and prosecutions are handled, more must be done. Officers do use unneeded force. And the sense among officers that they are above the law can lead to outrageous acts of violence even from those who are off duty.
We saw that in Huntington Station in 2011 when a drunk, off-duty Nassau County officer shot a cabbie, and 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.
After Newsday’s 2014 investigation into Nassau County’s record on police violence, the police department overhauled its use-of-force policies for the first time in 40 years. And the county recently tweaked the rules even further. The department hasn’t had a single officer-involved shooting in 2015 or 2016. But Nassau police unions have at times fought needed change, resisting the use of outside experts to formulate policy, invariably insisting that the county’s officers already do the right thing and arguing that any changes in use-of-force rules could compromise officer safety. That resistance shows how challenging this sometimes troubling culture can be. 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. — The editorial board