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Crime & Justice

Alton Sterling, Philando Castile police shootings reignite criticism of law enforcement




Protesters gather in front of a mural painted on the wall of the convenience store where Alton Sterling was shot and killed, July 6, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Sterling was shot by a police officer in front of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, July 5, leading the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation.
Protesters gather in front of a mural painted on the wall of the convenience store where Alton Sterling was shot and killed, July 6, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sterling was shot by a police officer in front of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, July 5, leading the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation.
Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

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A pair of fatal shootings by police, both with graphic cell phone footage and just 24 hours apart, are bringing further criticism on law enforcement practices. 

First, on Tuesday, police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana shot and killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling after receiving an anonymous report from someone who claimed Sterling, who was African-American, threatened them with a gun outside a convenience store. 

Then on Wednesday, a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota shot 32-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop. Castile’s girlfriend says he told the officer he was licensed to carry a pistol and was only reaching for his wallet when the officer fired several rounds into the car.

Brian Baskt, a political reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, was at protests outside Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s mansion in St. Paul following Castile’s death. He described speakers at the gathering as “impassioned” and “unsatisfied,” even after Dayton assured those gathered outside that “justice would be served.”

The Justice Department has opened investigations into both incidents. Local officials in Louisiana welcomed the federal investigation, and in Minnesota, Dayton himself called for Justice Department involvement.

Stephen Rushin, assistant professor of law at the University of Alabama and a specialist in policing and criminal procedure, said that the local authorities' willingness to comply with federal investigations is a function of current ideas about the proper role of policing.

“Today we’re in a unique time. The last couple of years post-Ferguson, there’s a new conversation going on about policing,” Rushin said. “[There is] a lot more public outcry and support for federal intervention in these sort of cases.”

Protests of both shootings have been peaceful, but the incidents have brought back to light some of the same issues involving community policing and tensions between cops and the public that were raised in the aftermath of black men who were killed in interactions with police in Ferguson, Baltimore and New York City.

Norm Stamper, the former chief of police at the Seattle Police Department who has written extensively on contemporary policing, said that public relations campaigns are not enough to resolve these deeply-entrenched problems.

“What’s needed is ... for the citizenry of a particular community to be invited into all aspects, all operations of police practice,” Stamper said.

Despite the outrage following Sterling's death, there has been a sense of unity in Louisiana's capital of Baton Rouge, said Sue Lincoln, news director of the city's NPR affiliate WRKF.

“While we have a long history … in Louisiana ... of racial tension and racial friction, in this case it seems that the people of Baton Rouge are coming together — black and white — with concern to find answers,” Lincoln said.

Guests:

Brian Bakst, political reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, he is stationed at Governor Mark Dayton’s mansion in St. Paul, where protests for the Philando Castile shooting are taking place.

Sue Lincoln, news director for NPR member station, WRKF in Baton Rouge, who has been covering the story; she was at last night’s vigil for Alton Sterling

Norm Stamper, former chief of police at the Seattle Police Department whose career as a police officer spans 34 years and author of “To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police” (Nation Books, 2016)

Stephen Rushin, J.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Law, The University of Alabama; Rushin's forthcoming book is "Federal Intervention in American Police Departments" (Cambridge University Press; 2016/2017)

This story has been updated.