The DOJ Will Investigate At Least One Of This Week’s Police Shootings, Though History Leaves Little Room For Optimism

Over the course of the week, two black men were fatally shot by police officers in separate states. Alton Sterling was shot and killed in Louisiana early Tuesday morning, and Wednesday night, Philando Castile was shot four times by a Minnesota police officer, ultimately dying from the injuries. Now, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will investigate the Sterling shooting and the Minnesota governor is asking the same for the death of Castile.

There is cell phone video footage of both incidents, and Black Lives Matter protestors have taken to social media and the streets to demand thorough investigations of both shootings. The DOJ has agreed to look into the shooting of Sterling, and FBI Director James Comey mentioned in a hearing Wednesday regarding a different topic that he expects his organization to be involved in the Castile case.

No investigations of Castile’s death have been confirmed yet, though Minnesota Governor Mark Daton said he requested the DOJ’s assistance and that, “overnight, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension began an independent investigation at the state level. They are currently collecting all necessary evidence, and interviewing witnesses, to determine what happened, and to assure that justice in this case is served.”

Turning the cases over to the DOJ is the best move both states have at this point, as public trust in cities and police departments to investigate police shootings has dwindled (to say the very least) since last year’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Freddie Gray in Baltimore in similar incidents — police officers allegedly pulling their weapons on black men without cause and/or using too much force.

The officers involved in Sterling’s shooting alleged the suspect had a gun on him when he was wrestled to the ground, though that has been disputed. The police were responding to an anonymous tip that a man in a red shirt selling CDs had pointed a gun at someone. Sterling matched the description, and when police arrived on the scene, he was reportedly pinned to the ground on his back and shot point blank in the chest by one of the officers.

Castile was pulled over by officers for a broken tail light, according to CBS News. Castile told the officer he was reaching for his ID and not the gun he had on him with a concealed carry permit before he was shot four times, according to Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, who was in the car at the time and live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook.

This keeps happening over and over again. When the DOJ investigated in Ferguson, the agency concluded that there was no evidence Officer Darren Wilson was lying about fearing for his life. In Baltimore, the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray is still ongoing, but no officers have been found guilty of a crime yet. Likewise, in the cases of Sandra Bland, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, there have been no substantial consequences for the officers or police departments involved.

The head of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, said last year in an interview with ABC News that these deaths — especially that of Bland, which had been taking up the news cycle at the time — “highlight [s] the concern of many in the black community that a routine stop for many members of the black community is not handled with the same professionalism and courtesy that other people may get from the police.”

President Obama spoke to this week’s shootings Thursday, saying that “they are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve.”

Which is why it’s important for the DOJ to take over in the wake of incidents where police officers kill civilians on duty.

The Department of Justice’s investigations are necessary because they take some of the heat off local police departments, in that the agency is (in theory) an objective third party investigating the shootings. Which is great, because that should make it more fair for everyone involved. However, until an officer serves time, progress will be slow coming.