by Atiba R Ellis, Professor, West Virginia University College of Law @atibaellis
*This post is part of the ACSblog Symposium on Policing and Race Relations.
When ACS asked me to write this blog, I had in mind a commentary that compared and contrasted the three views of policing and the nature of the leeway allowed the police in targeting high crime areas. But then, in the course of three days, we learned of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the views expressed in Utah v. Strieff took new context.
The targeting by the police can have lethal consequences. In the unsettling and graphic video of the shooting of Alton Sterling and the similarly graphic video of the aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castle, we see those consequences clearly. These videos show us the consequences immediately. At least one commentator called Sterling’s death a “modern day lynching.”
None of this denies that responsible policing does exist. As the recent shootings of police officers in Dallas remind us, most police abide by the law and put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms. Indeed, the officers killed in Dallas died protecting a peaceful protest of the deaths of Sterling and Castle.
But it is important to draw a distinction between lawful policing and police abuse that occurs with near impunity, especially when such abuse is disproportionately directed at communities of color. And it is important to critique legal doctrines, as the one extended in Strieff, which reinforce this impunity and contribute to the disproportionate state-sanctioned abuse of communities of color.
To understand this, we must understand the world in which this abuse takes place. When men of color die at the hands of police for activities as innocuous as selling CDs or reaching for one’s registration during a police stop, it comes as no surprise that those living in communities of color feel targeted. The deaths of Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castle follow a long list of high-profile deaths at the hands of the police, including Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. The investigative data, sociological data and lived experience in African American communities show that black men are at greater risk of being shot by police than other demographic categories. Thus, in this world, it comes as little surprise that communities of color feel that law has few bounds when it comes to the lives and deaths of Black and Brown bodies.