Will The Officer Who Killed Alton Sterling Go To Jail? It's A Question We've Heard Before

On Tuesday, a Baton Rogue police officer fatally shot a 37-year-old black man named Alton Sterling, and the encounter was recorded by a nearby bystander. The video of the incident is highly upsetting, showing Sterling being shot and killed while on the ground, at point-blank range. The police department has said that Sterling was armed and the altercation led to the loss of his life, but the case has already spurred protests. President of the local NAACP chapter Mike McClanahan has also called for the firing of Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie and the resignation of East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden. Now, people throughout the country are left to wonder: will the police officers who killed Alton Sterling go to jail, or will law enforcement and the judicial system deem this police shooting that law enforcement and the judicial system will deem justified, for one reason or another?

First things first: It is hard to get a police officer so much as indicted, let alone convicted, for use of force — at least that's what the best available statistics suggest. In the aftermath of a St. Louis grand jury's non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, FiveThirtyEight's Ben Casselman noted just how statistically unusual it was for grand juries to fail to indict in most other cases. In 2010, according to numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a mere 11 out of 162,000 grand juries failed to indict, and yet there have been multiple high-profile instances of police officers escaping legal consequence for lethal use of force in recent years.

The officers involved in the Sterling shooting were identified as Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, both of whom work in the uniform patrol division and said they felt justified in the shooting. So, are they likely to end up behind bars? If they end up being arrested and charged, it's a distinct possibility they could land in jail in a pre-trial capacity. If they are arrested, they would be jailed for some stretch of time pending bail, the terms of which would obviously be more severe the more serious the charges.

But if you're wondering whether they'll actually be convicted and sent to prison, that's another story altogether.

You need look no further than the non-indictment of NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner in 2014 as a vivid reminder — Garner's agonizing death was captured on video for all to see, and a Staten Island grand jury still declined to indict. Nor did John Crawford's death draw an indictment, nor Tamir Rice's, nor countless others.

This is basically all a long way of saying that yes, while the officers might end up behind bars for this, it's unlikely. Regardless of how damning the video looks — just like the Garner video did — police officers get a vigorous defense, both in real courtrooms and in the court of public opinion.