Authorities in Baton Rouge said this week that a teenager accused of stealing guns during a burglary told investigators that he and others involved were seeking bullets to shoot officers there. Officials said that they deemed this threat to be so credible that it shaped their response to protests over the death of Alton Sterling.
Police say that they arrested three people related to the theft, which occurred early Saturday morning at a pawn shop more than 2 miles from the food mart where Sterling was fatally shot by officers four days earlier.
Sterling’s death prompted heated protests in Baton Rouge, and images of militarized police officers facing off with demonstrators flooded social media and cable news, evoking similar scenes that unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., after police fatally shot a black teenager there in 2014.
On Tuesday, the Louisiana State Police said that authorities had arrested three people related to the weekend burglary at a pawn shop and recovered six guns. A total of eight handguns and one airsoft BB gun — which resembles a normal firearm — were taken, police say.
Baton Rouge police officers responding to an alarm at the pawn shop early Saturday say they apprehended a 17-year-old as he was fleeing the area. Police said that the teenager told them he and other people took the guns and were going to get bullets so they could shoot officers.
The teenager said that “the reason the burglary was being done was to harm police officers,” and that the group’s aim was “to get bullets to harm police officers in the Baton Rouge area,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said at a news conference Tuesday.
Dabadie said police “took this as a very viable threat” — those involved, he said, had just swiped eight guns — and that helped explain law enforcement’s aggressive posture toward protesters.
“This is the reason,” Dabadie said, “because we had credible threats against the lives of law enforcement in the city.”
Police had not charged anyone involved in the burglary with anything related to threatening officers as of Wednesday afternoon, but a police spokesman said that it was an ongoing investigation and that other charges could be added.
Beginning early Friday night and continuing into early Saturday morning, officers wearing helmets and carrying shields stood opposite lines of protesters waving signs, and some demonstrators standing in the road were pulled across the asphalt.
After nightfall on Friday, demonstrators gathered across roadways and held hands while they faced off with the police officers. Officers chased people attempting to cross the street, detaining one man while protesters cried: “Let him go!”
Tensions continued to escalate in Baton Rouge by the following night, when more than 100 people were arrested there, and some of those arrested said they could not understand the directions from police because officers were wearing riot gear and plastic masks.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said the police in Baton Rouge used “violent, militarized tactics on groups of people who have gathered peacefully,” while Amnesty International on Sunday said the number of arrests there “raises serious questions about proportionate response to peaceful protests.”
Baton Rouge and the nation have been on edge since Sterling was shot and killed as two Baton Rouge police officers tried to arrest him. A day later, police fatally shot a man in a traffic stop outside St. Paul, Minn.
Officers in Baton Rouge said that they saw a gun in Sterling’s pocket when trying to restrain him and saw him reach for the weapon, according to a police affidavit. The Justice Department has launched a federal investigation into the shooting, and the local prosecutor recused himself from any decision on criminal charges.
Louisiana State Police Col. Michael D. Edmonson said Baton Rouge protesters in at least one instance had thrown bricks at police.
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux III said the police’s posture toward protesters was in part because of the threat stemming from the burglary, and also pointed to the bloodshed in Dallas, where five police officers were fatally shot during a protest over policing.
“What you saw in the response was because of the very real and viable threats against law enforcement,” Gautreaux said. “All I can say beyond that is look what happened in Dallas — a very peaceful protest and then some crazy madman did what he did.”
As to why police believed the teenager arrested after the pawn shop burglary to be credible, Dabadie said: “We gathered his statement. For us, that was enough of a credible threat to take it seriously.”
In addition to the 17-year-old, two other people — Trashone Coats, 23, and Malik Bridgewater, 20 — were also charged after being found with guns that were stolen, police say. Police said Coats purchased two of the weapons. Another person — a 13-year-old boy — was also arrested.
This story, originally published Tuesday, has been updated with new information.