The police-involved shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in a Minneapolis suburb have reignited the national focus on police brutality against black people. Within days of these two black men’s deaths, a lone gunman fatally shot five police officers in Dallas, allegedly in response to these killings. Just this past Sunday, another gunman killed three law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge. Some commentators assumed that these gunmen represented the Black Lives Matter movement, but organizers have renounced the killing of the police officers and expressed sympathy to their families. At the same time, activists continue to call for an end to police brutality against black people. The now-viral videos that captured the final moments of Sterling and Castile’s lives proved too damning for people to ignore, and tens of thousands of protesters have taken to streets across the country to demand an end to this recurring police violence.
Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was allegedly selling CDs in front of a convenience store when an unidentified person called 911 and claimed Sterling threatened him with a gun. The harrowing video of Sterling’s killing did not show him wielding a gun. Instead, it shows him being cornered by two police officers, who struggle to detain him before shooting him at point-blank range. All of this took place within a few minutes. No standoff or negotiation—just a brief and deadly encounter.
Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Montessori school kitchen supervisor, was driving a car with a woman and her 4-year-old child as passengers. A police officer stopped him for a broken taillight, and the officer’s lawyer claims that Castile fit the description of a robbery suspect. Castile had no history of committing any robberies or related crimes, but he did have a history of being stopped by the police—more than 46 times. He was 32-years-old and had been stopped at least 46 times for alleged minor traffic violations, or what is more commonly known as “driving while black.”
In response to these back-to-back shooting deaths, many people are asking about next steps. Where do we go from here? While there are many roads that need to be traveled to more fully explore and remedy the longstanding issue of police brutality against black people, I believe an important place to start and stop with is with the fact that Castile, who spent his days feeding 400 children as he called them by name, had been stopped by police at least 46 times in his short life.
While we may not be able to prove the motivation behind these incessant numbers of police stops, it is reasonable to believe that “driving while black” played a pivotal role. African Americans have long complained about racial profiling and its effects on our civil liberties. However, it is more than merely a legal injustice; it is an affront to the understanding of the Imago Dei—that all people are created in the image of God. At the core of the Black Lives Matter movement is a cry for African Americans to be seen and treated as human beings. Throughout American history, black lives have not been valued in the same way as white lives. From slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow laws to the three-strikes laws that disproportionately filled prisons with black people, African Americans have struggled to be seen and treated by law enforcement officers as human beings. Recent events remind us that the struggle is far from over, and it is imperative that we take drastic steps to make corrective action.
First, we must stop ignoring the reality of racial bias in policing and start requiring anti-bias training of all law enforcement officers across the country. The claims of racial profiling against black people have been documented for decades, but there has been no federal mandate ordered that would seek to eliminate it. It is unconscionable to continue to give individual states and local governments the discretion to set training standards without federal oversight. It is past time for these documented claims of racial bias in policing to be heard and the right time for mandated anti-bias training.
Second, we must stop dismissing these fatal police shootings of black people as being done by just a few “bad cops” and start implicating the entire legal and criminal justice system that supports and upholds these police officers’ individual actions. In my book Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, which chronicled clergy involvement in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of Michael Brown, I quote activist and author Arundhati Roy who said, “Once you see it, you cannot unsee it.” The videos we have seen of the police shootings of black people like Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Michael Brown, and the subsequent non-indictments of the officers involved have left many Americans with an indelible mark of distrust of the legal system and its refusal to deem these officers guilty of murder. These actions are not only committed by individual police officers, but they are also sanctioned by protocols and procedures that must be changed in order to reduce their occurrences.
Finally, we must stop justifying these unjust shootings as “following protocol” and start challenging and changing the protocols. Police officers have the privilege of using discretion when interacting with the public, yet the consistent, documented claims of police brutality against black people and the high numbers of questionable shootings only lead to sever police trust.
We must challenge the protocols that allow for these kinds of deadly interactions and implement the kind of procedures that will prevent them. We must implement the kind of protocols that make it unlawful to use deadly force unless there is an imminent threat to the officer’s life or another person’s life, and all other tactical means such as de-escalation, verbal warning with a reasonable time to comply, and the use of a minimum detaining force have been exhausted.
These recent events will probably be recorded as a watershed moment in our history. The tragic fatal shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the five officers in Dallas, and the three officers in Baton Rouge have forced us to reckon with a troubled reality. In Ferguson and Faith, the clergy make clear that it is not about pitting people against the police. Rather, it is about doing everything possible to prevent these tragic events from unfolding in the first place. In order to do that, we must confront the realities of racial bias in policing, refute the “bad cop” narrative, and hold accountable the entire system that enables these actions, while changing the policing protocols that justify these kinds of interactions. These events should not have happened, and we need to start making these changes today to prevent more of them from happening tomorrow.
One of the chapters in Ferguson and Faith is titled “There is a Ferguson Near You.” Its purpose is to awaken all of our sensibilities to the fact that these kinds of events are not issues only in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Dallas, or Minneapolis, or merely “black people’s” issues. They are issues for all of us—regardless of our race or whether or not we live in the city where the incident happened. As we watch the images—of Philando Castile taking his last breaths; or of a white elementary student grieving and holding a sign that said Castille called him “Mr. Ethan”; or of Latino, white, and black police officers hugging civilians and each other in Dallas; or of Alton Sterling’s 15-year-old son crying uncontrollably for his “Daddy” during a press conference—it’s hard not to feel their pain and empathize with their anguish. But we must be willing to feel the pain deeply enough and allow the sting of these events to spark a genuine and lasting change. The way things are is not the way things have to be. In order for this gaping wound to begin to truly heal, we must be willing to listen to and believe the hard truths that it tells. Healing and reconciliation cannot happen without truth-telling, and the truth-telling must be followed by a corresponding action. This tragedy offers another opportunity for conversations to be had in communities across the country about equality and justice, and how we can act on those ideas. But until that time comes, the words of Ella’s song remind us: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Leah Gunning Francis is the vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Christian Theological Seminary and the author of Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community. Follow her @DrLeahGFrancis and leahgunningfrancis.com.