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Five key takeaways from the Justice Dept. investigation into Alton Sterling’s death

Video: No federal charges for police in Alton Sterling case (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it would not bring federal charges against two Baton Rouge police officers in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, ending the investigation launched after his death last year.

In announcing the decision, federal officials outlined the facts of the case and released a report on their determination, detailing how they came to the decision. Here are five key points from the Justice Department’s report.

1. An officer pointed his gun at Sterling’s head early in the encounter

While videos showing the moments of the shooting went viral nationally, it had been thus far unclear what exactly happened in the first moments of interaction between Sterling and Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake.

According to the report released by Justice Department investigators, the officers encountered Sterling sometime after 12:30 a.m. on July 5, outside the Triple S Food Mart. According to Justice Department summaries of yet-to-be-released video evidence, the officers began the interaction by telling Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car.

When Sterling did not immediately comply, “Officer Salamoni then pulled out his gun and pointed it at Sterling’s head,” the Justice Department report states, which prompted Sterling to put his hands on the car hood. When Sterling later moved his hands, Lake used his stun gun twice, and then Salamoni tackled Sterling.

2. Some things were kept out of the report — but not kept secret

The Justice Department says that “particularly sensitive facts and evidence” are not being disclosed to maintain the integrity of a forthcoming state investigation.

However, attorneys for Sterling’s family announced at a news conference that federal investigators told them that Salamoni, before the shooting — when the officer first drew his gun and pointed it at Sterling’s head — told Sterling, “I’m going to kill you.”

That detail, which Sterling’s family’s attorney say was drawn from still-unreleased audio and video of the interaction, could be a factor in whether state prosecutors bring charges.

“It shows Officer Salamoni’s mindframe,” Chris Stewart, the lead attorney for the Sterling family, said in an interview. “He was just out there raging, to put a gun to someone’s head who isn’t doing anything. They weren’t wrestling or fighting yet.”

An attorney for Salamoni declined to discuss whether the officer made the threat.

Justice Department will not charge Baton Rouge officers in fatal shooting of Alton Sterling

3. Sterling was shot six times. The final shots were fired into his back.

The Justice Department’s report includes a narrative of the shooting based on  videos that recorded the interaction. According to this narrative, Salamoni fired all six shots that struck Sterling.

The first shots were fired after Salamoni tackled Sterling and both officers tried to control the man’s arms, the narrative states. This struggle was captured in one of the videos that went viral last year.

Salamoni yelled that Sterling was “going for his pocket,” adding: “He’s got a gun! Gun!” While Salamoni tried to control Sterling’s hand, Lake drew his weapon and ordered Sterling not to move, the narrative continued. Less than one second later, with Sterling’s right hand not visible to any of the cameras, Salamoni again yelled that Sterling was “going for the gun!” and fired three shots into Sterling’s chest.

Salamoni, gun still in hand, then rolled onto his back, with Lake standing behind him as they faced Sterling. As Sterling began to sit up and roll over, bringing his arm across his body, Lake yelled at him to stop moving. When he did not, Salamoni fired three rounds into Sterling’s back, the report states. Lake then reached into Sterling’s pocket and pulled out a .38-caliber revolver, which was loaded.

“According to the officers, Sterling was large and very strong, and from the very beginning resisted their commands,” the Justice Department report states. “The officers reported that they responded with multiple different compliance techniques and that Sterling resisted the entire time.”

Demonstrators staged a protest after hearing that the Justice Department will not charge Baton Rouge officers in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling. (Video: The Washington Post)

4. The fatal encounter took less than 90 seconds

This is a common theme in high-profile police shootings, which can escalate from initial encounter to deadly force in a matter of seconds. In this case, the investigation said the time between the first police order to Sterling and the final gunshot took less than 90 seconds. The officers did not begin struggling with Sterling on the ground until less than 30 seconds before he was shot.

Justice Department formally reveals decision not to charge officers in Alton Sterling case

5. The investigation did not prove that either officer acted unconstitutionally or willfully violated Sterling’s rights

The federal civil rights investigation, which began in the summer, ultimately found “insufficient evidence” that the officers knowingly used unreasonable force or willfully sought to violate Sterling’s rights.

Successful civil rights cases are a high bar for prosecutors to clear, because they must prove that the officers acted willfully and with the intent to do something illegal. While the report notes that two unnamed use-of-force experts criticized parts of the officers’ techniques, it also adds that both experts “concluded that the officers’ actions were reasonable under the circumstances and thus met constitutional standards.”

The report also points to Salamoni yelling out that Sterling had a gun but not immediately opening fire, instead trying to control Sterling’s right hand. Describing this as significant, the federal report says that a successful prosecution would have had to prove that Salamoni did not believe Sterling was reaching for his gun when he shot him.

“There are no winners here, and there are no victories for anybody,” acting U.S. attorney Corey Amundson, who announced the decision, said at a news briefing Wednesday. “A man has died, a father, a nephew has died. My heart goes out to the family.”

Further reading:

Outrage erupted after video captured Sterling’s death last year 

Baton Rouge prosecutor recused himself from investigation into Alton Sterling’s death