Yesterday, two critical decisions were made in response to different police killings. First, police officer Roy Oliver was fired after he shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in Balch Springs, Texas. However, in a separate event, two white police officers, whose killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge was caught on cell phones, will not be charged for their actions.
Before discussing the ominous future with Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the helm, it’s important to recognize that the firing of Oliver is a small victory (albeit following a tragedy) that is worth celebrating. In the past, police departments have failed to truly hold their officers accountable for similar actions. Ferguson’s Darren Wilson, who was responsible for the death of Michael Brown, was placed on paid leave for months before he ultimately decided to resign. New York’s Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Eric Garner in the chokehold that took his life, was demoted to a desk job but received a bump in his salary. The firing of Oliver serves as an indication that police departments might be becoming less tolerant of their officers’ roles in fatal killings. The fact that Oliver’s fate was sealed just a few days after the incident and before he was even brought to trial suggests that the force could begin to take matters into their own hands and not rely on the legal system to hold officers accountable.
While Oliver’s firing is a sign of progress, the decision made surrounding Sterling’s death is disheartening. Much like many of the other tragedies that have garnered nationwide attention, there is clear video evidence of the two police officers shooting and killing Sterling. However, the Department of Justice, spearheaded by Sessions, has decided not to purse charges for the policemen who are responsible for taking Sterling’s life. This development is significant because it is the first decision made on a police shooting under the Trump administration, potentially serving as a sign of what’s to come. Cases surrounding the deaths of Garner and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice are yet to be ruled on, but the DOJ’s decision yesterday could very well foreshadow the fate of those proceedings.
Unsurprisingly, negative reactions were widespread following the news. In a New York Times article on the matter, 45-year-old Louisiana native Derrick Brody seems to have given up hope that either police brutality will slow down or that guilty officers will be held accountable for their actions. He is quoted saying, “over and over again. They kill a human being, and they get away with it, just ’cause they got a blue suit.” Sterling’s family was also upset, but a major reason why was quite surprising and disappointing for me to read about. The decision not to charge the police officers was reported by national news before the family had even been informed of the ruling. To me, this serves as extra salt in the wound for Sterling’s family, as the DOJ is essentially telling them that Alton Sterling’s life does not matter.
Of course, not charging the officers for the killing of Sterling is just one decision. There are many different cases involving police brutality and shootings with substantial proof, and perhaps in some circumstances, the DOJ will acknowledge the evidence and pursue charges accordingly. With that being said, the fact that this is the first big ruling on an important societal issue under the Trump administration makes it hard to be optimistic that police officers will be held accountable in the face of similar tragedies throughout the next four years.