A Black Lives Matter protest in 2015. Photo by Joe Brusky (Creative Commons).
This week, a cell phone video taken by a bystander captured disturbing footage of two white Baton Rouge police officers pinning Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man, to the ground and fatally shooting him. This is a tragedy, but the only rarity here is that the incident was documented on camera: Alton Sterling is the 558th person that American police officers have fatally shot this year. In the time since he died on July 5, officers have reportedly killed seven more people, including another Black man, Minnesota resident Philando Castile.
This level of violence shouldn’t feel normal. But in our country, it does. Another week, another fatal police shooting—and even when it’s filmed on video, it’s very unlikely the police officers involved will be punished or the department will change. That’s a reality nationwide, and it’s even more acute in Baton Rouge. The Baton Rouge Police Department has a long history of violence—they didn’t even make major reforms in 2010 after state police from Michigan and New Mexico (who were serving in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina) expressed written concerns that the local police “were engaging in racially motivated enforcement, that they were physically abusing prisoners and the public and that they were stopping, questioning and searching people without any legal justification.” Even with other law enforcement agencies calling out problems, the Baton Rouge police refused to change. And that’s no surprise. They didn’t have to change—there’s no accountability.
As Roxane Gay wrote in her New York Times piece “Alton Sterling and When Black Lives Stop Mattering,” each police shooting that gains national attention seems to lead to the same response:
“We know what happens now because this brand of tragedy has become routine. The video of Mr. Sterling’s death allows us to bear witness, but it will not necessarily bring justice. There will be protest as his family and community try to find something productive to do with sorrow and rage. Mr. Sterling’s past will be laid bare, every misdeed brought to light and used as justification for police officers choosing to act as judge, jury and executioner — due process in a parking lot.”
When we see this kind of violence over and over and over, we can become numb to it. But it’s not something that should be seen as normal. Policing will always involve some kinds of violence, but it doesn’t have to involve killing civilians. Our policing system is designed in a way that makes these kinds of killings routine. We can change that system. Last year, activists involved in Black Lives Matter (including Johnetta Elzie, DeRay Mckesson, and Brittany Packnett) came together to launch Campaign Zero, a group dedicated to ending police violence. Their mission statement is clear: “We can live in a world where the police don't kill people, by limiting police interventions, improving community interactions, and ensuring accountability.”
Campaign Zero's 10 policy reforms for ending police violence.
Campaign Zero’s research lays out policy solutions for 10 areas that need to be dramatically reformed in order to end police killings. In addition to protecting civilians’ rights to film the police and having police wear body cameras (the Baton Rouge officers’ cameras “fell off” before they shot Alton Sterling), Campaign Zero points out that departments need to end “broken windows” policing measures that are used disproportionately to harass and arrest people of color. We need independent investigations and prosecutions of police violence so officers who commit needless acts of violence aren’t let off the hook. We need police union contracts that make it possible to hold police officers accountable rather than contracts that protect them from being punished for misconduct.
The policy changes Campaign Zero recommends are far-reaching and will require political will to implement. But the idea they present is revolutionary: There are solutions for police violence. We don’t have to accept a system that leads to more and more deaths. It’s hard to believe, but in Europe, policing is a different reality. There are still problems with police brutality and racist justice systems that criminalize immigrant communities and people of color, but it’s rare for police to kill civilians. The research on police lethality in European countries versus the United States paints a stark contrast:
“Knife violence is a big problem in England, yet British police have fatally shot only one person wielding a knife since 2008 – a hostage-taker. By comparison, my calculations based on data compiled by fatalencounters.org and the Washington Post show that US police have fatally shot more than 575 people allegedly wielding blades and other such weapons just in the years since 2013.”
In the wake of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this week, police departments and the elected officials who oversee them should not remain complacent and complicit in a system that upholds police violence as a means to “protect” our communities. They can change. They can make changes that will save lives. We have to make sure that this kind of violence does not remain “normal.” Per usual, Beyoncé expressed our collective feelings best. In a statement she posted on her site this afternoon, she wrote, “We all have the power to channel our anger and frustration into action.”