According to The Guardian’s “The Counted” project, Sterling was the 560th person killed by police this year. Castile was the 561st. Despite a year of mass protests, despite the proliferation of videos of police violence and brutality, and despite a shifting national mood that acknowledges police brutality as both racially unjust and part of a broad pattern of behavior, the number of people killed by police is roughly on pace to be similar to last year’s number of people killed by police. Vigilance, complaints, scrutiny, and even rare prosecutions have done little to curb routine violence.
There is a sense of normalcy to what should be absolutely extraordinary. In Baton Rouge, swelling crowds prompted an immediate press conference from District Attorney Hillar Moore to announce that the Department of Justice would be investigating Sterling’s death right away. Just a year ago that might have seemed an entirely unlikely victory for those who pushed for scrutiny in officer-involved shootings. Now, it is unclear if even these extraordinary proceedings will result in justice or an end to the onslaught.
Moore’s press conference also suggested why policing is so difficult to change:
Well again, you know, it’s another person that’s dead, killed by law enforcement officers who have the authority by the state and the people— because we get our power, really, from the people, not just a piece of paper—that authorizes law enforcement to take a life in certain situations. Which is always—that’s why you guys are here in this situation and not on the streets of Baton Rouge where we have other killings, because this is potentially a state-authorized killing. [The law] gives law-enforcement officers the authority and mandates them to kill when in defense of themselves or others. So I think whenever there’s that situation and law enforcement officers [are] involved, it’s a completely different case than a person in the streets being killed.
As my colleague Brentin Mock notes, Moore’s comments seem unusually blunt. Police officers are in the business of state-authorized killing, to defend their own lives or those of others. And when they exercise that authority, Moore implies, their actions deserve greater scrutiny than other homicides.
The right to kill in self-defense is in keeping with the generally expansive and bloody American doctrine of self-defense. But officers are not ordinary Americans. They likely carry with them the same sense of intimidation and mistrust of people of color that many people across the country carry, but are simultaneously trained to aggressively interact with them on a daily basis. That fear and hypervigilance may be supplemented by what appears to be common racism. Officers are also allowed a far more generous interpretation of self-defense in disciplinary and court proceedings. In practice, simply claiming that they feared for their lives often proves sufficient grounds to secure acquittal. In essence, police officers are given lethal weapons, taught and authorized to use them rather liberally, and then deployed in a manner as to create situations to use those weapons.