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Baton Rouge police officers won’t be charged in fatal shooting of Alton Sterling

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said on March 27 that authorities will not charge two police officers for the fatal 2016 shooting of Alton Sterling becau (Video: Reuters)

Officials in Louisiana on Tuesday declined to charge two Baton Rouge police officers in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, one of a series of shootings that prompted nationwide protests in 2016.

Sterling, 37, was shot and killed after officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II responded to a call about a man threatening someone with a gun outside a convenience store. Although Sterling did have a gun — a loaded .38-caliber handgun found in his right pocket — it is unclear whether he was reaching for it when officers tackled and then shot him, as shown in a video that stoked national outrage.

State Attorney General Jeff Landry’s decision not to charge the officers followed the Justice Department’s announcement in May that there would be no federal civil rights charges against the officers because of insufficient evidence.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said during a news briefing Tuesday morning. He added: “I know the Sterling family is hurting. I know that they may not agree with this decision.”

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The decision drew condemnation from civil rights activists who note that, more than three years after the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. brought national attention to police killings, the number of officers prosecuted for fatal shootings remains vanishingly small.

While just under 1,000 people are shot and killed by police annually, just a handful of those cases each year lead to criminal charges, according to The Washington Post’s fatal police shooting database.

“I think this is one of many cases where it’s just not fair,” said Camryn Pourciau, 18, who protested on Tuesday afternoon in front of the Triple S Food Mart where Sterling was killed.

Pourciau, who is white, said Sterling’s death at the hands of police nearly two years ago pushed her into activism, particularly involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The officers should have been seen as guilty, lost their jobs and gotten what they deserved,” Pourciau said.

Officers are rarely charged for on-duty shootings, and convictions in such cases are even rarer. Last week, a Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot an unarmed Australian woman in 2017 was charged with murder and manslaughter. Those charges came about nine months after a jury in Minnesota acquitted the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during the traffic stop a day after Sterling was killed.

Since 2005, just 85 state and local police officers have been charged with a crime in connection with a fatal on-duty shooting, according to a tally kept by Bowling Green State University professor Phil Stinson. Of those officers, just 32 have been convicted — about half of whom accepted guilty pleas and some of whom were convicted of charges less than murder or manslaughter.

“As with many cases before Alton, the system has prioritized absolving the perpetrators instead of vigorously seeking fairness for the deceased, their family, and the larger communities in which they live,” declared Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who leads the Congressional Black Caucus and represents Baton Rouge, in a statement. “Alton’s name will be added to a growing list of young black men and women killed at the hands of law enforcement who were never charged and never had to face a jury of their peers.”

Following the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo., which drew national attention to police killings and the criminal justice system, there has been a slight uptick in charges against officers in fatal shootings — but, once charges were filed, even the cases that most outraged the public have failed to yield convictions.

“Today, another Black family was failed by our justice system,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of the civil rights group Color Of Change, in a written statement. “Our communities are subjected to a constant feed of Black bodies being murdered, but no one is held accountable.”

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Sterling’s death in July 2016 came at a fraught moment of racial tension nationwide amid shootings by and of police officers. A day after Sterling’s death prompted outrage and protests, an officer in Minnesota shot and killed Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker, during a traffic stop, the aftermath of which was streamed live on Facebook. That same week, five police officers in Dallas were gunned down by a black man angry at police, and just days later, another gunman killed three officers in Baton Rouge.

Landry’s office took over a state investigation into whether the officers would face criminal charges after Hillar C. Moore III, the prosecutor for East Baton Rouge, recused himself from the investigation because he had a prior relationship with Salamoni’s parents, both of whom worked with the Baton Rouge police.

The local investigation into Sterling’s death stretched nearly two years, in part because it could not begin until after federal investigators looked into whether to bring civil rights charges. Once the Department of Justice announced that it would not charge Salamoni and Lake federally, officials with the state attorney general’s office began their probe.

The Justice Department’s decision not to pursue charges in the Sterling case marked the first time under Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the department declined to prosecute a police officer investigated for wrongdoing in a high-profile case. That decision caused frustration in Baton Rouge not only for the lack of charges, but also because the news was reported by The Washington Post before federal officials had informed Sterling’s family.

But while declining to pursue charges in Sterling’s death, federal authorities provided Sterling’s family with new details about his death. After meeting with investigators, Chris Stewart, the lead attorney for the Sterling family, told reporters that evidence shows that at the beginning of the interaction with Sterling, Officer Salamoni put his gun to Sterling’s head, and said, “I’ll kill you, b—-.”

Bystander video, which was released to the public, as well as body camera video that has yet to be released, show the 90-second interaction, during which both officers tell Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car. When he did not, a struggle ensued with Salamoni pulling out his gun and pointing it at Sterling’s head. Later, Lake attempts to shoot Sterling with a stun gun.

Salamoni tackled Sterling and, with Sterling on his back and both officers on top of him, one of the officers appears to yell “He’s got a gun!” Then six shots rang out and Sterling was dead.

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During a 20-minute announcement detailing this decision, Landry said the investigation concluded that both officers “attempted to make a lawful arrest of Alton Sterling based upon probable cause.” He said the officers acted on the assumption that Sterling was armed while resisting the officers’ attempts to arrest him. After Sterling was shot, Lake found and removed a loaded .38 caliber handgun from Sterling’s right front pocket, according to Landry’s office.

Landry also said toxicology reports showed that Sterling had drugs in his system at the time of his death, which Landry linked to Sterling’s behavior during his encounter with police.

“It is reasonable that Mr. Sterling was under the influence and that contributed to his noncompliance,” said Landry, who did not take questions after announcing his decision.

Landry’s office also released a 34-page report which said Sterling’s body tested positive for opioids, cocaine and other drugs, results that “clearly indicated that he was under the influence of a combination of illegal substances,” the report stated.

The same report also said Sterling’s autopsy showed he had been shot six times — three times in the chest and three more times in his back — and all six bullets were recovered from his body. His cause of death was deemed a homicide caused by gunshot wounds to his heart, lung, esophagus and liver.

An attorney for Lake could not be reached for comment. John McLindon, the Baton Rouge attorney representing Salamoni, said he was not surprised by the decision not to charge his client.

“Every use of force expert that has looked at this … has concluded that it was a justified shooting,” McLindon said. “I’m not surprised at all by this announcement.”

McLindon said that he expects the police department will now fire both officers by arguing that even if the shooting did not amount to something criminal, it was a violation of departmental policies. He also said the officers are already planning to appeal that firing.

McLindon added that he found the attorney general’s comments about the toxicology report illuminating, and said that it perhaps helps explain why Sterling did not comply.

Murphy J. Paul Jr., the Baton Rouge police chief, said his department will continue its administrative review of how both officers acted in order to determine whether any policies or procedures were violated. He said the department hopes to conclude that process by Friday.

“We’re asking our community for just a little more patience,” Paul, who was sworn in as police chief in January, said at a news conference after Landry spoke.

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Sterling’s relatives and their attorneys assailed the decision, noting that they would continue pressing the case through a civil lawsuit filed last year.

“The system failed us,” Sandra Sterling, his aunt, said during a news conference. “He was not a monster. … This was a family man. A family man.”

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)

On Tuesday, outside the store where Sterling was killed, a disappointed Felma White went to the parking lot wearing a shirt covered with newspaper headlines about the shooting and the subsequent protests. She had it made specifically for Sterling’s funeral.

“I want justice for the family,” said White, 63. She described herself as a friend of the family who knew Sterling from purchasing his CDs at the store. “They have gone through so much. I wanted to see a guilty verdict for the officers.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D), who represents part of Baton Rouge, called the decision Tuesday “the latest sign that we have a lot of work to do in regard to criminal justice and policing reform.”

“Trust between the Baton Rouge community and law enforcement has deeply eroded,” Richmond, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement. “We must all continue to work to bridge the divide between law enforcement and community. Until this is done, many young black men and women will be forced to fear any non-threatening action they take could be met with certain death.”

While fatal shootings by police have continued at about the same pace as previous years, according to The Washington Post’s database tracking these incidents, these incidents have drawn less national attention recently and largely faded from the national political debate.

Some fatal shootings still prompt widespread media attention, including the death earlier this month of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot and killed by Sacramento police officers while in his grandmother’s backyard. The death of Clark, who was holding an iPhone at the time that police said they mistook for a gun, has given way to extended protests in that city.

California’s attorney general said Tuesday that, at the Sacramento police chief’s request, his office would “provide independent oversight” of the probe into Clark’s death.

In Baton Rouge Tuesday evening, the streets remained empty outside police headquarters, the scene of some of the most brutal clashes between demonstrators and police in the wake of Sterling’s 2016 shooting death. Barricades lined police property and massive temporary light fixtures aimed out at the streets, all seemingly in preparation for demonstrations that had not yet come.

At the Triple S Food Mart where Sterling was fatally shot, a small group gathered under a tent in the parking lot, boiling crawfish and talking.

Travis Hicks, 33, spread burned CDs out across two card tables to sell to store customers. Hicks knew Sterling, who also sold CDs at the store.

“I already knew what it was going to come down to,” Hicks said of Tuesday’s announcement. “If it was one of us, they would never hesitate to throw a charge on us. What difference is it if it’s the police?”

A.C. Dantzler, 36, agreed.

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “This is Baton Rouge.”

Further reading:

The Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings

Officer charged with murder in shooting death of unarmed woman in Minneapolis alley

What the police officer who shot Philando Castile said about the shooting