Alton Sterling May Only Get Justice By Way Of A Financial Settlement Like Every Other Black Family [Opinion]

Gerald HerbertAP Images

Alton Sterling is another Black man whose murderer has been set free. The only penalty leveled against Baton Rouge police officer Blane Salamoni for shooting the father of five was his termination which was announced on Friday. After federal and state law enforcement declined to file criminal charges against Salamoni and his partner Howie Lake II, the family has been left to pursue its civil case against the city.

Taking civil action has become part of the formula in the fight for justice against police brutality. Price tags have been placed on Black lives as a way to make these cases go away without any major changes being made to the way that officers police the communities they are supposed to protect and serve.

In Sterling’s case, both officers would only face disciplinary action internally. Salamoni was fired, but because Lake didn’t “lose his temper” during the encounter, he was suspended without pay for three days. Body camera footage, plus three other videos, were released which captured Salamoni using graphic language and spewing profanity. Even as Sterling lay dying on the ground, the now-former Baton Rouge police officer continued his tirade.

Like many other officers who have lost their jobs after using lethal force, Salamoni may very well end up employed by another police force in the near future. His termination is already being categorized as a political move. The video footage wasn’t released until after the announcements that he wouldn’t face any criminal charges and his firing.

Site of Alton Sterling's Murder
Featured image credit: Gerald HerbertAP Images

At one time, the people would view the Baton Rouge Police Department’s decision as at least partial justice. But once the civil case is settled, and the families win judgments totaling thousands and even millions of dollars, the same cycle will be starting in yet another city across the country with a new case of police brutality involving the use of lethal force.

The irony in all of this is that we either vote law enforcement officials into office or we elect those who appoint them. Either way, they are all public servants paid by federal, state, and local revenues. Those salaries come primarily from the tax dollars that the communities that they serve generate. Those same tax dollars are then used to settle these lawsuits that families of the slain file in pursuit of justice.

The question must now be asked, what happens to the cities when the money runs out? In St. Louis, the overtime that the city had to pay police after the acquittal of former officer Jason Stockley totaled over $3 million.

The New York Times reported that protests and boycotts caused the city significant losses in revenue stemming from canceled concerts and temporary closures of multiple businesses. The costs of extra police patrol to manage the ongoing demonstrations disrupted the local economy and threw the city’s budget out of the window.

High-profile cases usually mean bigger payouts. The bigger the perceived public relations disaster, the more cities will offer in settlements. The use of social media has much to do with the attention these cases are getting.

As such, Mike Brown’s family was reportedly awarded $1.5 million. The family of D.C.’s Terrance Sterling (no relation to Alton Sterling) was granted $3.5 million. And 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s family was given a whopping $6 million payout.

While no amount of money can ease the pain of losing their loved ones, this seems to be the closest thing that Black families can get to some sort of justice. It would seem that the cities would rather cut a check than purge local, state, and federal law enforcement of its bad actors and start anew.

Perhaps it is just cheaper or maybe just easier to slap the officers’ wrists and pay off the families of those they kill. But the overriding issue is that the “slave catcher” mentality of law enforcement dates back to the inception of policing in this country. There is a deeply-ingrained belief that Black lives hold no value.

Unless and until pressure is relentlessly placed on those who condone the actions of racist and bigoted officers of the law, then murderers will continue to go free. The people who employ these public servants are paying with their lives and their pocketbooks to support state-endorsed crimes against them. The family of Alton Sterling is well-aware of this fact, and their fight will not end with a civil suit. They want justice at whatever the cost.