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California's Proposed Police 'Use of Force' Law Would Expand Legal Gray Area

Over at National Review Online this week, I’ve been involved in a debate with NRO writer David French over the Sacramento police shooting of Stephon Clark. Mr. French acknowledges that the officers’ actions may not have been criminal (as I also argued in an earlier column here on PJ Media), but says their tactics were overly aggressive and led to Clark’s unnecessary death. I disagree. (You can read Mr. French’s columns here and here; my responses are here and here.)

While it is most often my practice to defend police officers involved in controversial incidents, there are some police officers whose actions I cannot defend, such as now-former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor, who inexplicably shot and killed Justine Damond last July. Within days of that shooting, I predicted Noor would be charged in Damond’s death, and nothing that has emerged since Noor was arrested has changed my mind about his culpability.

But then there are other police shootings that fall somewhere in the middle, those that may be lawful in the strictest sense of the term, but in which the officer’s tactics are so glaringly deficient that I cannot help but condemn them. Such is the case in the death of Alton Sterling, who in July 2016 was shot and killed in a confrontation with Baton Rouge, La., police officers.

Not long after the incident, bystander video emerged to show the two officers, who had answered a call regarding a man with a gun, struggling with Sterling on the ground in front of a convenience store. Sterling could be seen reaching for his pocket and trying to pull out a pistol, but one of the officers shot him before he could do so. A gun was in fact found in his pocket.

So, here you had two officers who were trying to detain a man suspected of carrying a gun, only to find themselves wrestling with him and trying to prevent him from drawing that gun and shooting them with it. Clearly, under the circumstances this was a lawful shooting, as it was found to be by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.

But that needn’t end the discussion. And indeed, it didn’t. With the conclusion of the criminal investigation, the Baton Rouge Police Department was free to conclude its administrative inquiry, and on March 30, the department announced that Officer Blane Salamoni would be fired and Officer Howie Lake would be suspended for three days.

Though Officer Salamoni’s termination strikes me as excessive and political, it seems clear from the body camera footage that both officers deserved to be disciplined. These videos show the officers approaching Sterling in the parking lot, with Lake directing a woman away from a conversation she’s having with Sterling. The officers then grab Sterling and order him to put his hands on the hood of a parked car. When Sterling resists, Salamoni places his gun to Sterling’s head and says, “Don’t move or I’ll shoot you in your f***ing head.” He also calls Sterling a “bitch,” and repeats the threat to shoot him in the head.