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An ugly cycle: Police shootings, little accountability and anger

By Rhodesia Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Apr 9, 2018 - 10:48:55 AM

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Demonstrators protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed Black man shut down Interstate 5 in Sacramento, Calif., March 22. Hundreds of people rallied for Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old who was shot in his grandparents' backyard. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

An ugly cycle of deadly police shootings of Blacks followed by a failure to hold officers accountable continues to stoke anger over the loss of Black life, whether in the South or on the West Coast.

“The city of Baton Rouge failed the Sterling family,” said Veda Washington, after hearing State Attorney General Jeff Landry’s decision to not bring charges against the two officers involved in the fatal shooting of the father of five in front of a convenience store in 2016. The U.S. Department of Justice also decided not to prosecute the officers last May.

The late March decision in the Sterling case, which sparked outrage and was captured on video, came as the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Calif., by police stoked anger over cop shootings of unarmed Black men.  At Final Call presstime, a pathologist hired by the Clark family said the father of two was shot multiple times, including six bullets in the back.

No justice in Baton Rogue?

If the attorney general, the mayor, and the chief of police see no fault in what they did to my nephew, shooting him six times while he laid on the ground, then there’s a serious problem, Ms. Washington stressed.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry approaches the lectern to speak, March 27, to report his offi ce's fi ndings, that there were no state criminal charges to be prosecuted against Baton Rouge Police Deptartment offi cers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, who were involved in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man, in July 2016 outside a convenience store. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to bring federal civil rights charges against the two White police offi cers last May. Attorneys for family members still plan on pursuing civil charges. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

“We’re going to get justice. And that justice is seeing those officers jailed. Not placed on administrative leave, not fired, but behind bars,” she said following the March 27 decision.

Jane Johnson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said the organization  stands with the Sterling family and communities most scarred by police violence.

The ACLU released a statement that named Alton Sterling the 122nd Black person killed by U.S. law enforcement in 2016.

“His death is yet another example of police brutality against people of color and our country’s systemic failure to hold law enforcement accountable for that brutality. Justice will not be served until we end this epidemic of police violence against people of color once and for all,” Ms. Johnson added. A civil suit was filed by the children of Mr. Sterling last June.

Alton Sterling, right, a 37-year-old Black man was shot to death as he lay on the ground with two police offi cers on top of him. Photos: MGN Online

At Final Call presstime, several media outlets reported that one of the officers had been fired and the other suspended for three days. Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul announced officer Blane Salamoni’s firing March 30. He also suspended officer Howie Lake II, the other officer involved in the deadly confrontation, for three days. Ofc. Lake helped wrestle Sterling to the ground but did not fire his weapon that night. Both officers had remained on paid administrative leave since the shooting.

Police also released body camera footage and other videos of the officers’ deadly encounter with Mr. Sterling.

In the body camera footage of the encounter, an officer can be heard repeatedly using profanity as he shouts at Mr. Sterling and at one point threatens to shoot him in the head as Mr. Sterling asks what he did.

L. Chris Stewart, a lawyer representing two of Sterling’s five children, said the newly released videos show officer Salamoni attacked Sterling without provocation “like a wild dog.”

“The most obvious thing that stands out is Alton wasn’t fighting back at all,” Atty. Stewart said. “He’s trying to defuse it the whole time.”

While the Sterling family was reeling from the devastating news of being denied justice, two more unarmed Black men were gunned down by law enforcement officers in just days of each other.

Danny Ray Thomas, 34, whose family said he suffered from depression after his two children were allegedly drowned by their mother a couple of years ago, was fatally shot by Deputy Cameron Brewer in Houston, on March 22. The shooting was caught on video.

Danny Ray Thomas, 34, whose family said he suffered from depression after his two children were allegedly drowned by their mother a couple of years ago, was fatally shot by Deputy Cameron Brewer in Houston, on March 22. The shooting was caught on video.

Texas authorities reported that Deputy Brewer shot Mr. Thomas when he refused to obey his orders to get down on the ground. As he continued to approach the officer with his pants wrapped around his ankles, a single shot was fired, fatally wounding Mr. Thomas.

That shooting came on the heels of what some called an execution, the police killing of 22-year-old Clark, who was shot at 20 times in the back yard of his grandmother’s home by two Sacramento police officers investigating car break-ins and vandalism March 19. One cop was White and the other was Black.

Livid and frustrated protestors from Baton Rouge, Houston, New York, Sacramento and elsewhere took to the streets to demand justice.

Demonstrators in Sacramento locked arms and blocked the entrance to the Golden 1 Center where the Sacramento Kings had a basketball game. They reportedly yelled, “You ain’t seeing no game tonight. Join us or go home!”

Days later, it led to the Kings arriving at the arena wearing shirts that read, “Accountability.” The team has since pledged to work with Black Lives Matter in Sacramento to do work in the Black community.

Sequita Thompson, Stephon Clark’s grandmother, asked during a press conference why didn’t officers shoot the young man in the leg, or in the arm, send a dog, or use a taser?

In Harris County, Texas, Sheriff Ed Gonzales admitted there were a number of things that could’ve been used before lethal force in the shooting of Mr. Thomas in Houston, from verbal commands to the use of a taser, to the use of his hands. Though he expressed concern for his deputy’s use of deadly force, it was in a state of crisis, the sheriff said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, law enforcement officers are given leeway for using deadly physical force if they reasonably feel their lives are in danger. “And it doesn’t matter that an officer acted recklessly or with negligence or by mistake, exercised bad judgement, used bad tactics, or even that the officer escalated the situation when he could have de-escalated,” the Justice Dept. said.

Advocates for criminal justice reform often face setbacks, particularly when those in authority blunt the power of agencies created to help ensure police accountability and independent reviews of shootings and police discipline.

A judge stripped Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board of the power to subpoena and investigate police misconduct after it was created in 2014 to improve trust that incidents of alleged police wrongdoing would be dealt with appropriately, and impartially. The Civilian Complaint Review Board was created after the Justice Dept. found Newark’s Police Department rarely faced consequences for violating citizens’ rights.

Ray Tensing, a former University of Cincinnati police officer, was charged with shooting 43-year-old Sam Dubose, an unarmed Black man, in the head during a traffic stop in July 2015. It was caught on video. The victim was pulled over for having a missing front plate. A Hamilton County, Ohio, grand jury returned an indictment of murder and voluntary manslaughter against Mr. Tensing, who was also fired from the police department. However, no conviction came and a judge declared two mistrials.

Cincinnati’s Fraternal Order of Police then filed a grievance against the university calling Mr. Tensing’s firing unlawful. The FOP action resulted in Mr. Tensing receiving nearly $350,000 in back pay and $100,000 in legal fees will be paid by the university.

Sam Dubose who was shot in the head by Officer Ray Tensing in Cincinnati.

Kevin Washington, immediate past president of the Association of Black Psychologists, says the impact of Black people being deprived of justice over generations tends to leave people feeling disillusioned, estranged, and disenfranchised.

“So, what I call the process that we exist in is not post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), because we’re not in a post period, but I call it ‘Persistent Enslavement Systemic Trauma’ (PEST),” he stated. “It is an ongoing process by which one is disavowed psychologically, that one feels disinherited and disenfranchised.”

The function of enslavement of African people was to first dehumanize them, he explained. “And by making them non-human then they can be mistreated. That’s the first art of war,” he said.

“The situation we find ourselves in reminds us that we’re still not seen as human even though we have the illusion of inclusion, we wake up in the nightmare of the reality that we are excluded from what is considered to be the American dream,” he asserted. “So, the psychological state of our people at this time, in general, is a feeling of hopelessness, sadness, and despair, which becomes masked as anger, violence, and belligerence.”

Dr. Wilmer Leon, political scientist, said, “First, we have to understand that police departments, many of them in this country, specifically in the South, started out as slave catching operations and have developed over time to what we know today as police forces. But the mentality of those initial slave catching operations in terms of how they viewed us was as property and things. That mentality has continued to exist, not only within those police forces, but it has existed to a great degree in the way that America [views] African Americans.”

We’re experiencing a systemic problem and until America admits that it was founded upon racism and that it continues to be racist, we will not make any progress at all, Dr. Leon concluded.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)