Sterling was shot and killed early Tuesday morning after police responded to a complaint about an armed man threatening people outside a convenience store. Cellphone video showing Sterling on the ground, underneath two officers, when he was killed, began circulating online early Tuesday evening. By the end of the night, the outrage was rippling nationwide.
Baton Rouge police, the local district attorney, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who called the video “disturbing,” announced Wednesday morning that federal officials with the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice would investigate Sterling’s death.
About an hour later, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie named both officers who had been involved in the shooting: Blane Salamoni, a four-year veteran from a prominent local law enforcement family, and Howie Lake, a three-year veteran of the department.
“We want to know what happened, we want to know the truth,” said Dabadie, who did not clarify which officer fired the fatal shots. “At this point, like you, I am demanding answers, like you all, my prayers are with this community and the family and loved ones of Mr. Sterling.”
President Obama was aware of the shooting, press secretary Josh Earnest said at his daily briefing. “Regardless of what this investigation finds, there is a family in Baton Rouge and there is a community that is grieving right now,” Earnest said. “And obviously our thoughts and prayers are with the family that’s lost a loved one.”
Questions abound as to the circumstances of Sterling’s death, which was the 505th fatal police shooting by an on-duty officer in 2016, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings. And, as has been the case after dozens of other fatal police shootings in recent years, the first versions of what happened are coming more from a video showing a fragment of the incident than from police.
Police said they responded about 12:35 a.m. Tuesday after receiving a 911 call about a man who was selling CDs and threatening people with a gun outside a Triple S Food Mart. The bystander video of the shooting shows Salamoni and Lake attempting to detain Sterlingwho police say was armed with a gun and tackling the man to the ground.
Sterling was shot and killed while pinned down by the officers.
“If you look at the video, it certainly speaks for itself,” said state Rep. Edmond Jordan, an attorney representing Sterling’s family, during a news conference Wednesday morning. “Mr. Sterling was not reaching for a weapon. He looks like a man who is trying to get his head up, who is actually fighting for his life. A life that ended immediately thereafter, almost as if he knew what was about to happen.”
The cellphone video of the incident began with police standing a few feet from Sterling. A loud pop — like that of a stun gun — can be heard.
“Get on the ground!” a police officer yelled.
“Get on the ground!” the voice yelled again, followed by a second pop.
Sterling, a large man, remained on his feet.
A police officer tackled him over the hood of a silver car, then onto the ground.
Meanwhile, another restrained his left arm behind his back and knelt on it.
“He’s got a gun!” someone yelled.
Both officers drew their pistols from their holsters. Then, the officers shouted something unintelligible, which seemed to include the phrase “going for the gun.”
Two noises that sounded like shots rang out immediately after.
Whoever filmed the video then dropped the cellphone.
“Oh, s—,” someone said.
Three more shot-like sounds rang out.
“They shot him?”
“Oh, my f—ing goodness.”
Sterling was pronounced dead on the scene when an ambulance arrived at 12:46 a.m. East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William “Beau” Clark said in an email that the initial autopsy reports concluded Sterling suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back.
The video of the shooting was captured by chance by members of Stop the Killing Inc, a local anti-violence activist group and documentary team that listens to police scanners and shows up at the scene of potentially violent confrontations to take video. A second video that emerged later in Wednesday appeared to show one of the police officers removing a gun from Sterling’s pocket after he was shot.
Stop the Killing Inc. was founded by Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed, a former gang leader turned anti-violence activist, who said that two members of his organization drove to the scene of Sterling’s shooting after hearing police scanner traffic about a potentially violent disturbance. Reed declined to say which member of his team shot the video, or confirm if he himself was present for its recording, citing safety concerns.
Reed said his group didn’t immediately release the video because it wanted to see how transparent police would be about the shooting.
“You want to see what the police are going to say and how transparent they’re going to be,” said Reed, 43, who has spent most of his life in Baton Rouge. “You know that you’re holding a chess piece, the most important part is to move that piece at the right time.”
But when police did not immediately release body and dash camera footage, and then after activists heard that officers have allegedly seized security camera footage from the convenience store that captured the shooting, Reed and others decided to publish the video. They began posting it to Facebook and Instagram around 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Soon it had gone viral.
“We’re forcefully seeking justice,” Reed said. “This is a civil rights movement, and this is the continuation of same struggle that black people have been going through for so many years.”
Police departments nationwide have grappled with how to quell public distrust after police shootings. Protests have erupted in dozens of major U.S. citiesfrom Cleveland to Minneapolis to New York in response to police shootings during the past two years. In both Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, demonstrations gave way to nights of rioting and violence as frustrated community members demanded answers following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in Baltimore.
In many cases, few details of the circumstances that led up to a shooting are available in the days immediately after someone is killed. And often the officers involved are not immediately named publicly. An investigation by The Post earlier this year found that 1 in 5 officers involved in fatal police shootings in 2015 were never named publicly.
“There is a delicate balance between giving information to the public and possibly compromising an investigation,” said Ronal Serpas, the former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department.
In the days following a shooting such as Sterling’s, investigators are focused on locating additional video evidence as well as direct eyewitnesses, Serpas said. He added that one difficulty is that after a shooting that is discussed so prominently, there are often witnesses who come forward who claim to see things that they actually haven’t.
While he stressed that any fatal shooting is a tragedy and that the public deserves answers, Serpas said it is important that law enforcement officials balance the need to release information publicly with the need to get the investigation done correctly.
“Many members of the public see what they thought was a murder right in front of them on the video, and it very well might have been,” Serpas said. “But the question you have to ask yourself is, do you want a rush to judgment that ends up letting a guilty go free because of mistakes in the investigation?”
District Attorney Hillar Moore said that Baton Rouge police had interviewed both officers about the shooting before handing the case over to federal officials. Attorneys for both officers could not be reached for comment.
“The officers feel they were completely justified,” Moore said during a news conference.
Sterling’s family members were heartbroken by the video, and said they were outraged at what they said was a deadly instance of racial profiling.
Sandra Sterling, an aunt who said she raised Alton as her own son after his mother died, compared Tuesday’s killing to the fatal police-involved shooting of a white 6-year-old in November in Marksville, La., after which two Louisiana officers were arrested and charged with murder.
“All I want is justice for my child,” Sterling told The Post over the phone Tuesday night, her voice shredded by shouting and grief. “I want the same treatment y’all are giving that person in Marksville that killed that little white baby. I want that same kind of justice.”
“I don’t think they would have did that to a white person,” added Neco Sterling, one of Alton’s cousins.
Abdullah Muflahi, the shop’s owner, told various local media outlets that police shot Sterling with a stun gun — as the video suggested — but that the man remained standing. Police then tackled him and pinned him down. One yelled “gun,” then one fired four to six shots into Sterling.
Police “were really aggressive with him from the start,” Muflahi told the Advocate, adding that he saw police retrieve a gun from Sterling’s pocket after the shooting. “His hand was nowhere [near] his pocket” when he was shot.
After the shooting, Muflahi said, the officers began cursing and both seemed to be “freaking out.”
Finally, the store owner said he heard one of the officers say, “Just leave him.”
A crowd began gathering outside the Triple S Food Mart about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday — swelling to more than 200 people at one point — and didn’t dissipate until well after 2 a.m. Wednesday. Protestors gathered again Wednesday afternoon in preparation for an evening vigil outside the store. Among them was Regina Adams, 53, who described herself as an aunt to Sterling.
They weren’t blood relatives, she said, but he had lived and spent time in her household since he was 13 or 14 years old. “He’d say, ‘I’m your son, because you don’t have one.’ If you met him, you would fall in love with him.”
Adams brought coolers with soda and packs of water bottles to give to protesters and reporters in the store parking lot. She is set up in front of the makeshift vigil that has been created for Sterling. “I’ve got some cold drinks, love bug,” she says as a protestor passes by.
“When he was little, I used to tell always him to go home,” she says with a laugh. “I wish I could tell him to go home now.”
On a table in front of the convenience store sat a wreath of flowers, a stuffed dog and several burned CDs. Above it hung a sign stating “RIP Big Alton.”
At a news conference Wednesday morning, the local NAACP president called for the police chief to resign.
“What I’m calling for today is that the chief law enforcement officer to fire the police chief,” said Michael McClanahan, the Baton Rouge NAACP president. “He must step down. We cannot have anybody who allows this type of action to take place.”
“This must be answered for,” he added. “It should not take national attention for us to get an answer about a man being murdered by police officers.”
Sandra Sterling said the viral video of her nephew’s killing was excruciating to watch.
“That video is everywhere now,” she said. “It hurts me to see it. I can see the picture, but I don’t want to hear the sound. The sound gets me. It gives me an anxiety attack when I hear the sound.”
At the same time, however, she said she was glad the video emerged.
Before it was posted online, police and news media “twisted” the story to make Alton “seem like the bad guy,” she said.
“They had already prosecuted him,” she said. “Now their attitude has changed.”
Sterling said she learned of her nephew’s death minutes after it happened, when a neighbor who witnessed the shooting called her. She raced to the convenience store, where she could see a pair of legs sticking out from behind a car.
“Is that my son?” she asked police officers. “Is he dead?”
When the officers refused to answer, she pressed closer in an attempt to see whether it was Alton.
“They said, ‘Get back,’ or they were going to Tase me,” she told The Post. “They pulled their Tasers out.”
She then backed away and went around to the other side of the building to get a better look. By then, however, police had moved Alton’s body, she said.
“It was terrible,” she said. “I didn’t know if he was dead.”
Eventually, another officer arrived and told her that the body was her nephew’s.
According to Louisiana court records, Alton Sterling had a criminal record dating back to 1996 that included aggravated battery, domestic abuse, possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute and illegally carrying a weapon with a controlled dangerous substance.
Sandra Sterling acknowledged that her nephew had a rap sheet but said he had “paid his debt to society.”
She described him as a “generous” giant. At 6-foot-4 and more than 300 pounds, Alton had only recently gotten out of jail and was living in Living Waters Outreach Ministry, a Christian transitional living center. Though he was struggling to get his life back on track, he still “gave away more CDs than he sold.”
“When Alton ate, everybody ate,” she said.
Sandra’s son, Elliott Sterling, said his cousin Alton was well known in Baton Rouge for being a silver-tongued salesman. On holidays such as the Fourth of July, Alton stayed outside the Triple S hawking his CDs and DVDs until 2 or 3 in the morning.
“He was really good at selling those CDs,” Elliott Sterling recalled. “If somebody asked for blues or country music, he’d know it all. He couldn’t make it in a regular job, but he could make it selling CDs. He could converse with everybody.”
He said Alton had four boys who, like him, will now grow up without a father.
“He had a hard life. He didn’t have no mama, no daddy,” Elliott said. “He wasn’t stable at all. He lived day to day based on what he made.”
He and his mother both doubted that Alton tried to pull a weapon on police, as the officers appear to shout in the video. Elliott said his cousin had been robbed at least once outside the convenience store and could have been carrying a gun “for protection,” but would never have pulled it on officers.
“He had his hands up when the officer tackled him,” Elliott said. “Even if he did have a gun [in his pocket], he couldn’t get it out with them holding him down like that.”
Sandra Sterling, a bail bond recovery agent in Baton Rouge, went further.
“Alton never had a gun. I know my child,” she claimed. “My take is that when they moved him, when they pulled him up so the public could no longer see him, that gun was put in his pocket.”
Baton Rouge police have not said whether a gun was found on Sterling. Officials are expected to hold a news conference Wednesday morning with more details on the incident.
The Sterlings say they will be arriving early to protest.
Like Richmond, Alton’s family members have called on state or federal authorities to take over the investigation.
“You’re not going to go against your people,” Sandra Sterling said, arguing that Baton Rouge Police should not investigate its own officers for the shooting.
Alton Sterling is one of 122 black Americans shot and killed by police so far in 2016, according to a Washington Post database of fatal police shootings. About 10 percent of the black Americans shot and killed were unarmed at the time of the shooting, while about 61 percent were armed with a gun.
Sterling is the second person fatally shot by Baton Rouge police this year. The first was Calvin Smith, a 22-year-old black man who police say led them on a short car chase before opening fire at them, wounding two officers Feb. 13.
“The video footage released today of the shooting of Alton Sterling by officers of the Baton Rouge Police Department was deeply troubling and has understandably evoked strong emotion and anger in our community,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said in a statement in which he called for federal officials to investigate the shooting. “There are a number of unanswered questions surrounding Mr. Sterling’s death. Including questions about the initial calls for police presence, the level of force used by officers, the verbal and physical altercation and the response of the officers after he was shot. I call on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a full and transparent investigation into this incident.”
Later, in a letter addressed to President Obama, Richmond said the need for answers is urgent.
“The pain felt by Mr. Sterling’s family is severe and the right of his community to have significant questions answered in pressing,” Richmond wrote.
Sandra Sterling compared her nephew’s case to that of Jeremy Mardis, a white 6-year-old boy who was fatally shot in Marksville, La., in November by two officers working second jobs as city marshals. The officers, both of whom are black, were trying to serve a warrant on Mardis’s father when they chased him down a dead-end street and opened fire, killing the boy. Body cameras recorded the incident.
“They went to jail and it was all over the world,” she said. “I want my son to be the same way because he was important, too.”
Mark Berman in Washington and Ashley Cusick in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.
This post has been updated and will continue to be.