The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Only one-third of African Americans say they have confidence in the police. Killings like Alton Sterling’s are part of the reason.

Video: No federal charges for police in Alton Sterling case (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
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If you're looking for someone to be surprised by the decision not to bring criminal charges against the Baton Rouge police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, don't look to black voters.

Sterling's death prompted intense protests after he was killed in July 2016 by officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, who were responding to a call about a man who had threatened someone with a gun. The Baton Rouge officers found the 37-year-old Sterling selling CDs outside a convenience store, and fatally shot him during an encounter that lasted less than 90 seconds.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said during a news briefing Tuesday morning.

“I know the Sterling family is hurting. I know that they may not agree with this decision,” Landry added.

And neither will black Americans.

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) said Tuesday that the decision continues to create distance between African Americans and law enforcement.

“Trust between the Baton Rouge community and law enforcement has deeply eroded,” he said. “We must all continue to work to bridge the divide between law enforcement and community. Until this is done, many young black men and women will be forced to fear any nonthreatening action they take could be met with certain death. That is no way to live life.”

Only 30 percent of black Americans have confidence in police, according to a Gallup poll from June. And while that lack of confidence didn't begin with the police shootings that have dominated headlines in recent years, they certainly don't help.

One of the issues that could continue to stand in the way of better relations between the two groups is the gap between how they perceive police shootings of black people.

A Pew poll in 2017 found that while 60 percent of Americans said that the deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement represented broader problems between police and black citizens, 31 percent of police officers say the same.

In the survey, officers said their departments have tried to improve relations with black citizens and that many officers have been trained to de-escalate potentially deadly situations. Two-thirds support the use of body-worn cameras by officers. Only 1 percent say their department’s rules on using force should be stricter.

There is little optimism among many black Americans that the increased training will lead to institutional changes in policing, especially since the topic now seems to have fallen behind other political priorities.

During the 2016 campaign, President Trump called the fatal shootings of Sterling and Philando Castile, who was killed by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop, “very bad” on Fox News.

Bill O'Reilly: When you see something that happened in Louisiana, what happened in Minnesota, where blacks are killed by police and there is videotape and this kind of thing, what goes through your mind?
Trump: I thought they were terrible. I thought it was a terrible, disgusting performance that I saw. Now, whether that's training, whether they choked or they got scared or nervous. I mean, the one man who was being stepped on and then shot in particular, I looked at that and I said wow, that's bad. That's bad. The other one in the car, really bad but I guess they could say he was going for his license or identification and maybe thought it was a gun, so. But it was bad. Both of them were very, very sad. So maybe that's lack of training. Maybe it's bad people. I don't know. It's such a sad thing to see those two sites.

When asked whether he felt there was a problem in American policing with blacks being treated differently from whites, Trump said “it could be,” before saying the way to decrease incidents like Sterling's death is to better train police.

But despite pledging during the campaign that he would keep black communities safer than Hillary Clinton would, relations between police and black communities hasn't been a major talking point of Trump's since taking office.

The topic entered headlines again this month with the shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot by police 20 times in his grandmother's back yard, prompting national outrage. Police officers have fatally shot 253 people this year, according to The Washington Post’s police shooting database. Eight of them were unarmed.

When asked about Clark at Monday's White House news conference, deputy press secretary Raj Shah said that he “not aware of any comments” from Trump but added that the president cared “about any individual who would be harmed through no fault of their own.”

Whether that concern will turn into policy change, from statehouses to the White House, is unclear.