Before Alton Sterling, Louisiana police killed mentally ill black father Michael Noel — and 37 others since 2015

Louisiana police officers have a recent history of pulling the trigger without cause

Published July 9, 2016 1:29PM (EDT)

Protestors in Baton Rouge, La., July 6, 2016.    (AP/Gerald Herbert)
Protestors in Baton Rouge, La., July 6, 2016. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

Videos of the brutal police killing of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have flooded the Internet.

Sterling was selling CDs outside of a convenience store when he was detained by two white police officers. The officers were allegedly responding to a 911 call about a man with a gun.

Footage taken by witnesses shows a police officer holding Sterling on his back on the ground, before shooting him multiple times in the chest, killing him.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the Justice Department will investigate the shooting, which has reinvigorated protests against police killings of black Americans.

Louisiana has seen a series of these shootings in recent months. Since 2015, Louisiana police have killed at least 38 people.

Several months before Sterling was killed, another shocking shooting took place in Louisiana, yet this attack has not gotten very much press coverage.

On the evening of Dec. 22, 2015, two sheriff's deputies killed Michael Noel, a mentally disabled black 32-year-old father, in St. Martinville, a town roughly 60 miles southwest of Baton Rouge.

Noel had paranoid schizophrenia and had struggled with mental illness since he was a child. During episodes of psychological breakdown, Noel's mother, Barbara Noel, called local authorities and asked for help taking him to the hospital.

In the eight months before Noel was killed, in fact, Barbara Noel had obtained an order at least three times for officers to take her son into protective custody so he could get treatment, the Associated Press reported.

The deputies' previous orders said that Michael Noel had been suicidal, hallucinating, hearing voices and talking to imaginary people.

When officers arrived for the fourth time, on Dec. 22, Noel resisted arrest, they claim. The deputies tasered the skinny, 130-pound man twice, but said this had not been effective.

Sgt. Pittard Chapman then shot Noel in the chest. Chapman claimed Noel had tried to use his unsecured handcuffs as a weapon.

Barbara Noel said she saw her son collapse onto the floor and die, without saying a word. “They killed him! They killed him!” she recalled screaming.

Michael Noel's aunt told local media that, in the three times in which deputies had come before to help deal with her mentally ill nephew, they didn't have guns.

Noel was never the type of person who hurt anyone, "he just didn't want to go to the hospital with them," his aunt told local media. "You don't need a gun!" she wailed. "Why? Why?"

Immediately after the shooting, Louisiana State Police spokesperson Brooks David said he did not know why officers were called to the home, even though the deputies had at least three orders from the previous eight months.

Just one week before the shooting, in fact, on Dec. 14, a deputy responded to a “mental complaint” at the Noel family’s home, the AP reported. The officer spoke to Michael, who claimed he “speaks to Jesus Christ,” according to the incident report. This case was subsequently referred to the sheriff’s Crisis Intervention Team.

"Everybody in the neighborhood knew Michael," a neighbor told local reporters. "He's totally nonviolent." Another neighbor called him "a real nice person" who "would not hurt anyone."

In March, Noel's mother, ex-girlfriend and three children sued St. Martin Parish Sheriff Ronald Theriot and the two deputies involved in the killing. The family argued that the shooting was unjustified and was the result of poor training and supervision.

Noel’s family say they believe racism was a factor in the incident.

In May, Louisiana prosecutors denied filing criminal charges in the white deputies' killing of Noel, an unarmed mentally ill black man.

Assistant District Attorney Chester Cedars, the chief prosecutor, insisted the shooting "was a reasonable reaction to an extraordinarily intense and volatile situation which was brought on, solely and exclusively, by Michael’s conduct."

Cedars accused Noel of hitting Sgt. Chapman, allegedly chipping his tooth. The deputy "apparently could not escape Michael’s onslaught," the assistant district attorney wrote in his defense of the killing.

37 others killed by Louisiana police since 2015

Noel was not the only unarmed person killed by Louisiana police in recent months, although his case is particularly extreme.

As of July 7, police in Louisiana have killed 11 people so far this year. Officers killed another 27 people in 2015.

This is according to data collected by The Guardian. The newspaper launched The Counted project in 2015, in response to widespread civil rights protests against police brutality. The project documents police killings in the U.S., including data on the location, race and gender of victims, and whether or not they were armed.

Of the 11 people killed in Louisiana this year, seven were black, three were white and the race of the other victim is unknown. Ten were male, and one was female.

Roughly one-third of the population of Louisiana is black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while two-thirds of people killed by police so far this year have been black.

One was unarmed — Emily Thibodeaux, who was killed in February. Two had a firearm, one had a knife and the remaining seven had "other" weapons.

Thibodeaux was shot and killed by her husband, a reserve police officer. At the time of the shooting, he was off duty. He was allegedly cleaning his gun when it accidentally fired, killing her.

A West Baton Rogue Parish grand jury decided in May not to charge the officer for killing his wife, citing a lack of evidence.

The month before, in January, police killed 27-year-old black man Eric Senegal at his home. They also killed his dog. The officers were serving Senegal a search warrant for drugs.

Senegal's family criticized the police for not releasing information about the killing. A family friend told local reporters that, even if Senegal had drugs in his house, he shouldn't have been killed. "He wasn't a criminal," she said, condemning the trigger-happy authorities. She added, "He was just a normal kid, decent man trying to live a life for his wife and his kids."

This shooting is being investigated by state police.

On Dec. 14, 2015, a week before Michael Noel was killed, Louisiana police shot and killed another black man. An officer stopped Calvin McKinnis, 33, for a suspected license plate violation. When the officer heard what he believed to be a gunshot, he shot at McKinnis' car, killing him. A gun was later found in the car.

In a startling case that got much more press coverage in November, Louisiana police shot and killed a white 6-year-old boy who was sitting in the passenger seat of a car being driven by his father. The police account of the story changed numerous times.

Police originally described the shooting as "an exchange of gunfire," but later admitted that the victim's father was not armed.

561 killed by police in the U.S. so far this year

In 2015, U.S. police killed 1,146 people — an average of more than three killings per day, according to The Guardian's The Counted project.

As of July 7 of this year, U.S. police have killed 561 people — an average of roughly three killings per day, although slightly less than 2015.

Of the 561 people killed by U.S. police this year, 275 were white, 136 were black, 86 were Latino, 13 were Native American, 10 were Asian and 41 were of another or an unknown race.

Men made up 529 of those killed, or 94 percent. The other 32 were women, 6 percent of the total.

Roughly half, 49 percent, of the people killed by police were white, while whites make up 77 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau.

Just 13 percent of Americans are black, on the other hand, while 24 percent of the people who have been killed by U.S. police so far this year were black.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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