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Metro police urge caution to high-profile cop shootings

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit’s top cop questioned Thursday whether police in Louisiana used proper tactics by grappling with a man they believed was armed, in one of two police shootings this week that have drawn national scrutiny.

Police officers are trained to stay away from suspects they think may be carrying a gun, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said. That’s in contrast to a viral video of an incident in Baton Rouge on Tuesday that shows officers tackling Alton Sterling, 37, and wrestling with him before fatally shooting him.

“I want to stress it’s important to not judge a situation until there’s been a thorough investigation, and I don’t want to indict these officers, because I don’t know all the facts,” Craig said. “But just looking at the video, based on my 39 years of experience, there are some things I find troubling.”

Local law enforcement officials are calling for people to reserve judgment until all the facts come out about the two videotaped officer-involved shootings, the one in Baton Rouge and one Wednesday in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Everyone wants a quick answer, but sometimes there’s not a quick answer,” Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police president Robert Stevenson said. “And on video, sometimes everything isn’t as it appears — and sometimes it is.”

The shootings are the latest to spark outrage nationwide over police tactics and raise questions about officer training and race relations. Protests were held Thursday in several cities including Dallas, where two snipers reportedly killed three officers and wounded seven, sending the crowd scattering for cover and officers with guns drawn searching for the shooters near a parking garage.

In the Baton Rouge incident, police were responding to a 911 call about a man brandishing a gun outside a convenience store. The cellphone video, which was quickly shared by thousands on social media, picks up at the point when two officers tackle the 300-pound Sterling.

He was convicted in 2000 of criminal sexual assault involving a 14-year-old girl and in 2009 for carrying a gun while in possession of marijuana. It’s unclear whether the officers were aware of his record when they responded.

After wrestling with Sterling, one of the officers fires shots as the video pans right. When the picture focuses back on Sterling, he’s seen bleeding from a chest wound.

A second, clearer, video surfaced that shows only a few seconds of the officers wrestling with Sterling before one pulls out his pistol and gunshots are heard.

The officers were placed on administrative leave and the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is leading an investigation into the incident.

Craig pointed out the video doesn’t show what happened before the two officers tackled Sterling.

“That’s why it’s so important to let the investigation play out,” he said. “But I’ve learned that if you respond to a call to service and there’s a person with a gun, you use talk, time and tactics.

“I’ve been taught if you think someone’s armed with a gun, you don’t approach. You ... engage the suspect with oral communication, giving clear directives. You try to gain compliance by using voice commands, unless there’s an imminent threat.

“ ... But that’s what none of us seeing that video knows yet: Whether the officers felt there was an imminent threat that necessitated tackling (Sterling). I know what it looks like from the video, but the problem today is, people are quick to make up their mind based on a video that may not tell the whole story.”

Second shooting

A day after Sterling’s death, another video of a fatal police shooting went viral: a Facebook live stream of the aftermath of an incident in Minnesota, in which Diamond Reynolds looks into the camera and says a St. Anthony police officer had just shot her fiance four times after stopping their car for a broken tail light.

As she filmed the video, Philando Castile lay dying next to her in the car.

“He let the officer know that he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm,” Reynolds says in the video of the incident.

Kenneth Reed, spokesman for Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said police-community relations have improved in Detroit, and said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about maintaining that relationship.

“Since the consent decrees (the federal oversight of the police department which ended last year after being in place since 2003), there seems to be a better emphasis on community policing in Detroit than in Baton Rouge or in Minnesota.

“But still, with the lack of opportunities for people to earn a living in Detroit, and the frustration that comes with that, all it takes is one incident like what occurred in Baton Rouge or Minnesota, and I’m afraid we could have another uprising like we saw in 1967,” Reed said, the year of the Detroit riot.

Earning trust

Stevenson expressed concern about some of the rhetoric that ramps up in the wake of officer-involved shootings.

“I wish people would realize: There are almost a million police officers in this country, and they go on millions of runs a day, and the vast majority of them happen without incident. We wish our officers were perfect, but in any situation where you have human beings, you’re never going to be perfect. That’s the case in any profession.

“It’s not a good time for policing in general and these type of incidents don’t help. Officers have to make split-second decisions. It’s easy to judge them the next day. But let these investigations take place, and if something was done wrong, fix it.”

Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad, who had two incidents in recent months in which officers fatally shot citizens, said police shootings in other states have an effect locally.

“Clearly, things that happen around the country in law enforcement impact us,” he said. “But we have to come to work every day and earn our citizens’ trust. I tell my officers: Be mindful of these incidents, but keep doing the great job they’ve always done.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

The Associated Press contributed.