Alton Sterling Shot by Police Officer
Anchorwoman: Joining me now to talk more about the shooting death of Alton Sterling is criminal defense attorney, Page Pate. Thank you so much for coming in and talking with us. The videos that we’ve seen are disturbing. We have two police officers on top of Mr. Sterling, and he is shot at point-blank range. What is your reading of what played out?
Page: I mean, we haven’t talked to all of the witnesses yet, but having watched both of these videos, I think it is a clear case of excessive force. I’ve represented police officers in cases like this, where they’ve used force against an individual that they were trying to arrest or trying to apprehend. And the key legal question is, does that individual, Mr. Sterling in this case, present an immediate threat to the officer or some other individual in the area? If there is no immediate threat, if that person doesn’t have a gun out and is about to shoot, then you cannot use deadly force. And so, I think what we’ve seen from this video is excessive force because they shot him and they killed him when he was completely immobile.
Anchorwoman: Now, the Justice Department is now handling this. How do you think they will proceed going forward?
Page: Well, the Justice Department will come in as an independent agency to look at this. There’s a U.S. Attorney’s Office there in Baton Rouge, but I do expect the investigation will be run out of Main Justice in Washington, D.C. The FBI will investigate it. They’ll, of course, look at the same video that we’ve looked at, but they will also talk to the witnesses. They’ll, of course, talk to the officers if the officers want to cooperate. They don’t have to, because if it’s a criminal investigation, then they have a Fifth Amendment privilege not to talk to law enforcement. So, we don’t know, at this point, if the officers are actually going to make a statement about what happened.
Anchorwoman: And as you say, you’ve dealt with cases like this.
Anchorwoman: How should the police have dealt with this particular situation?
Page: Well, the first thing that you want to do when you arrive on the scene when there’s been a complaint of an individual with a firearm threatening people, is you want to assess whether or not that person is an immediate danger to anyone. Do you see a firearm? Is he making moves or gestures in a violent or tumultuous manner towards someone? But, from what we saw in the video, when they approached this individual initially, he didn’t have a gun that was brandished, you couldn’t see any type of weapon, and he wasn’t moving towards anyone. He appeared to be in a position posing no harm to anyone. So, once he’s contained and you know there’s no harm, then you can approach him, question him if necessary, and if you believe he’s committing a crime, if you find a gun on him and it turns out he’s a convicted felon, then you can arrest him. But, there’s no reason for deadly force if he’s not posing an immediate threat to you.
Anchorwoman: We see this same situation play out a number of times across the United States. What is the problem here? Is there a problem with the training of police in these sorts of situations? Do people panic? Do the police just not know how to handle some of these situations?
Page: I think it’s a little bit of both, and then I also think there’s, I hate to say it, but an undercurrent of racism in some law enforcement agencies across the United States. I mean, I’ve seen that, personally, in my practice. And I don’t think you can have any other conclusion after watching this video, other than these officers did not treat this man as they should have. Now, was that based on their own prejudices, or their fear, their panic? Maybe they were poorly trained. But, they’ve all been in law enforcement for several years. Both of these officers who were directly involved in the use of force, they’re not new cops. They’ve been on the force for a period of time. You would expect them to be better trained.
Anchorwoman: Page Pate, thanks so much for talking with us. We appreciate it.
Page: Thank you. It was great.
Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of our firm’s “The Federal Docket” and a contributor to Mercer Law Review’s Annual Survey in the areas of federal law. Tom was named a “Top 40 Under 40” lawyer by The National Trial Lawyers, and is a recognized expert in federal sentencing law. He graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom’s reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.