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Politics hard to remove from discipline choice

In the final analysis, authorities decided a borderline case bowing to the demands of politics.

Last week, recently-installed Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul meted out punishments to Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II. Salamoni, who shot and killed Alton Sterling in 2016, received termination from the department, while Lake, who also struggled with Sterling, received three days suspension.

Perhaps no death ever at the hands of police in Louisiana has had so much scrutiny. A federal investigation, followed by a state version, came to an identical conclusion: the policing that occurred wasn’t the best, but the officers’ actions were not criminal. Thus, officers had not even acted negligently during the incident, which involved several instances of resistance by Sterling who officers knew to have a handgun, and also actions by Sterling that conveyed reasonably that he actively sought to pull it, disregarding repeatedly instructions to stop his activities that ultimately made it rational for the officers to fear for their lives.

It is unfortunate that Sterling died. But the one most responsible for his death certainly was not Lake, nor even Salamoni. It was Sterling himself. He was tripping out at the time of his death, and probably also minutes earlier when he had threatened a passer-by with the gun that provoked the police response. Both conditions would have sent him back to prison for a probation violation. Both also would explain why he resisted so vigorously. He must have gambled that he could somehow get out of the situation without being the worse for wear; regrettably, he lost, and more than anybody involved he contributed to his own death.

That set the stage for internal departmental administrative actions. Likely, Salamoni’s belligerent behavior, even offset by Lake’s occasional forays into trying to calm the situation, escalated the situation. The question is whether that approach was necessary to get Sterling to back down, as in a dangerous environment only extremely forceful commands may prove sufficient.

The department’s use of force policy wording – “Every member of the department shall use only the force necessary to effect an arrest or maintain the custody of a suspect” – and command of temper regulation to “exercise emotional control” are judgment calls by investigators. An argument either way reasonably could be made reviewing recordings of the 90-odd second encounter.

These went against the officers, and it’s difficult to assume the political environment didn’t have something to do with that, despite Paul’s assertion that facts, not politics, solely drove the outcome. Prominent area politicians sided with Sterling’s family and friends from the start in crying for criminal charges against the officers, and some used it as a broader indictment of American race relations (the officers are white; Sterling was black). Riots ensued that culminated with a disturbed individual, attracted by the mayhem and attention, retaliating against law enforcement he saw as responsible for Sterling’s and other’s deaths by killing three and injuring another three.

Even now, a faction continues to claim justice denied for Sterling. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who hired Paul, long ago opined that Salamoni needed firing and Lake suspending, echoed to varying extents by some other community activists critical of these investigations and who likely supported Broome electorally. Too many view this as the last chance for any kind of justice, and who knows what kind of reaction, violent or otherwise, certain segments of the community would have fomented if Salamoni had not suffered termination or Lake drew no punishment.

With all due respect to the authorities involved, politics mattered. That doesn’t mean that the punishments – decisions that both are appealing, which if unchanged may well end Salamoni’s law enforcement career and at the very least take Lake off Baton Rouge streets forever – are inappropriate. It just means politicians, whether elected or appointed, wish not to make the embarrassing admission that politics influenced their call.

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