Alton Sterling was not an admirable man. His rap sheet (offered to media by Baton Rouge officials for $148 a copy) is 46-pages long and includes convictions going back 20 years for illegal weapons possession; battery; carnal knowledge of a teen-ager (whom he impregnated); possession of stolen property; disturbing the peace; domestic abuse; and, just last month, failing to register as a sex offender.
Much is likely to be made of that past in the days ahead as various factions vilify or martyr him as one of the latest black men to be killed by police in America. Most of it isn't relevant to his death, but there is something to learn from it, which I'll get to later. But here's what really counts: the fateful decisions two Baton Rouge, La., police officers made early Tuesday morning when they took Sterling's life in the line of duty, officially joining an increasingly populous club of killer cops.
At least two videos of the Louisiana incident have surfaced, and they are troubling. They show the white officers with their guns drawn physically pinning Sterling — who had been Tasered, according to a witness — to the ground. There's hollering ("He's got a gun!" one officer yells) and tussling and shots fired by police. Sterling, 37, goes limp, lying on his back as a blood stain spreads across his chest and one officer removes something from his pocket.
The two officers — Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II — have been placed on administrative leave, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced plans to investigate, and the NAACP is calling for Baton Rouge's mayor and chief of police to resign. (Sound familiar, Baltimore?)
For all that, we owe our thanks to the video takers. Without them, I doubt we would know Sterling's name today, or the name of Philando Castile. He's the black school cafeteria supervisor who was shot to death Wednesday in a car, in front of his fiancee and her 4-year-old daughter, by a Minnesota police officer who had pulled the trio over in a St. Paul suburb for a broken taillight. Diamond Reynolds recorded and livestreamed on Facebook her interactions with police after the shooting.
"Please, officer, don't tell me that you just did this to him," she says in the recording, her fiance slumped next to her in the car seat. She recounts how Castile told the officer he had a licensed gun in the car and was shot repeatedly as he reached for his identification. She is measured and polite, appearing to not yet realize that her fiance's wounds are fatal, while the officer is clearly distressed and shouting what sound like expletives.
"I told him not to reach for it, I told him to get his hand up," the officer screams, still pointing the gun into the vehicle. "You told him to get his ID sir, his driver's license," Ms. Reynolds replies.
Castile's mother later told CNN that her son "was just black in the wrong place."
In Baltimore, Freddie Gray was black in the wrong place in a different way. He was black in a poor, black area of the city targeted for increased policing. And he died because he was well known to police and had the misfortune to be taken into custody by six officers who appeared to have an extreme indifference to his life.
Like Gray, Sterling in Baton Rouge was well known to local police. He was selling CDs outside a convenience store Monday night into Tuesday morning, when he reportedly shooed away a homeless man by flashing a gun. The man called 911, police arrived, and Sterling wound up dead. He may have been combative; he certainly has a history of taunting police.
In 1997, he pleaded guilty to battery on a police officer.
In 2000, he threatened to hire a lawyer and take the badges of the officers who had impounded his car, according to an affidavit of probable cause, and then he "laid on the pavement of the parking lot in a prone position and told officers to go ahead and beat him down, because regardless of the outcome, he was going to have [them] fired."
And in 2009, as an officer attempted to frisk him for weapons, Sterling allegedly tried to run and was thrown to the ground, where he "ignored officer commands," another police affidavit states, and "kept trying to reach for his left pocket for an [unknown] item. While wrestling with the defendant on the ground, a black semi auto gun fell from his waist band."
And here's where the lesson of his past is learned. But it's not about Sterling, whose behavior seems fairly consistent. The lesson is about police, and how outcomes differ according to their actions.
In each of these three prior incidents, instead of killing Sterling, officers subdued and arrested him. If only Officers Salamoni and Lake had managed to do the same.
Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @triciabishop.