We All Have the Right to Live

Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images
Enough is enough. From Trayvon Martin's death in Florida four years ago to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile's deaths two days ago, people are outraged and wanting the world to know that we all have a right to live.

News broke that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police within the span of 24 hours. The videos of their deaths are graphic, gruesome, and searing but sadly, becoming common in America.

Constitutional protections prevent police from acting as judge, jury and executioner. Yet, according to a 2012 FBI Supplementary Homicide Report, Blacks account for 31 percent of police killing victims, despite the fact they make up only 13 percent of the population in the U.S. Sandra Bland was stopped for failing to signal before changing lanes. Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes. Mike Brown allegedly stole cigarillos. Walter Scott had a broken taillight. Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun. Freddie Gray made eye contact with police and fled. The list is long and it should not be. The common thread these Black men and women share is that police stopped them for alleged minor infractions and ended up dead.

The penalty for minor infractions in America, however, is not death. The U.S. Constitution guarantees certain rights for all Americans. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure. Probable cause, or the likelihood a crime is being or has been committed, is required before a police officer can stop or search a citizen. Once police have established probable cause, they make an arrest or give a ticket for a violation. The Sixth Amendment guarantees certain rights to criminal defendants, including the right to a public trial, the right to a lawyer, the right to an impartial jury, and the right to know the nature of the charges and evidence against you.

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These rights and standard criminal procedures are trampled upon when the suspect is Black. Routine stops, assuming there is even probable cause, often end up deadly before an arrest is made or ticket issued. There is no opportunity given to the suspect to plead their case. Sometimes, death occurs in police custody with no valid explanation, as in the cases of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray.

Because the use of deadly force by a police officer is permitted in cases where they reasonably believe they fear for their lives, this defense is often employed by officers. There has been little to no accountability in these shooting deaths, as police officers are often successful in using this defense. Interestingly enough, they enjoy the full use of the rights the Black men and women above did not.

In many of these cases, the definition of “reasonable” fear of death does not pass the common sense test. For example, Sterling was selling CDs outside of a store and, according to his wife, he had permission from the store to sell there. The video shows Sterling pinned under the weight of two officers. His right arm is visible but his left arm is not. The police officer takes the gun out of his holster and shoots Sterling at point blank range with bystanders in close proximity. Does a police officer have a reasonable fear of death when that officer and a second officer have pinned down the suspect? If a suspect is already restrained, where does the fear of death come from?  

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In the case of Philando Castile, the video only shows what happened after he was shot. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s fiancée, looks directly into the camera she is filming on Facebook Live and says they were pulled over for a busted tail light, that Castile was reaching for his wallet as requested by the police officer, that she told the police officer he was licensed to carry and had his firearm on him, and that the police officer shot him four times. Castile is seen in the video slumped to the side with his life seeping out of him.

The police officer appears agitated and still has his gun pointed in the car as Castile bleeds and tells Reynolds to keep her hands where he can see them. This all takes place with Reynold’s four year-old daughter in the back seat. Where is the reasonable fear of death if a suspect says he is complying with a police officer’s order and reaching for his identification?

In these cases, police officers appear to lack discernment and have an unreasonable fear of death given the circumstances. We know of many instances where the police are successful in de-escalating altercations, not shooting to kill, and providing a suspect the benefit of the doubt – when the suspect is White. In 2012, James Holmes who is White, killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theatre; he was apprehended and stood trial for his crimes. In 2015, Dylann Roof, who is White, killed 9 Blacks at a church in South Carolina; he was apprehended, taken to Burger King for a meal, and will stand trial for his crimes. Holmes, Roof and police officers accused in shootings always receive their constitutional protections. Sterling, Castile and many others do not.

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