Police Funerals Baton Rouge

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks during funeral services for Baton Rouge police Cpl. Montrell Jackson at the Living Faith Christian Center in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, July 25, 2016. Jackson, slain by a gunman who authorities said targeted law enforcement, is the last of the three Louisiana law enforcement officers killed in last week's ambush to be buried. (Bill Feig/Baton Rouge Advocate via AP, Pool) ORG XMIT: LABAT124

Bill Feig

The cell phone video of Baton Rouge police fatally shooting 37-year-old Alton Sterling had surfaced on the internet only a few hours before a staffer for Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards alerted him to watch.

"I found the video to be disturbing," Edwards said, describing the now-viral images of Sterling, an African American, who sold CDs in the store’s parking lot, being wrestled to the ground next to a silver car by two officers, then fatally shot.

Under normal circumstances, local police shootings are handled by local authorities — not the governor of the state. The Louisiana State Police can’t get involved in local investigations unless requested by local authorities.

But protestors already had gathered about three miles from the Governor’s Mansion at the Triple S convenience store, where Sterling had died. Mindful of how riots broke out after deaths involving officers in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, Edwards started making calls. He soon became the public's point man for working through the tragedy.

By 8:30 the morning of July 6, less than 12 hours later, Edwards was standing on the steps of the Governor's Mansion, flanked by several influential members of the Legislative Black Caucus and State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson.

He announced that the fatal shooting would be investigated by the U.S. Justice Department and FBI.

Less than two weeks later, after a series of tense though generally peaceful protests, things felt like they were quieting down. Edwards was getting ready for church on the morning of July 17 when the phone rang again. A shooting had taken place in Baton Rouge just minutes earlier. Officers had been shot. It was bad.

"I immediately turned the TV on because I knew," Edwards said of initially learning from Edmonson about the deadly attack that killed three officers and injured three others.

Edwards never made it to church.

He was being updated continuously by Edmonson. He held a press briefing to share information with the public and called for unity. He visited the wounded officers and families of the slain officers at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.

Edwards, a former Army Airborne Ranger, is used to springing into action in intense situations.

But in the span of two weeks, the Democrat who took office in January found himself at the intersection of two inter-related, hot-button issues that have dominated national conversations — and headlines — for more than two years.

During the whirlwind, Edwards' office held a blood drive that collected about 160 pints of blood in memory of the slain officers. He took part in a telethon to help the officers' families. He skipped the final day of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday to attend a memorial that featured Vice President Joe Biden.

He's been quoted in People magazine and newspapers across the globe. A news conference shortly after the three Baton Rouge officers were gunned down drew so many cameras and reporters that it had to be relocated to a larger briefing room.

He traveled to Washington to take part in a conversation with President Barack Obama, community leaders, law enforcement officers and activists about building better relationships between police and the communities they serve.

Edwards' spokesman Richard Carbo said the governor was cognizant of the paths taken by others and the proverbial landmines that lay ahead.

While some quickly called for the resignation of Mayor-President Kip Holden and Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie after Sterling's death, Edwards has largely remained untainted as he has weaved his way through both tragedies.

Though not an Edwards’ supporter, Woody Jenkins, head of the Republican Party of East Baton Rouge Parish, nevertheless praised the governor’s hands-on, low-key style handling of the Sterling shooting and police slayings.

“Particularly in the early stages right after Sterling died he came in and had a calming effect,” Jenkins said. “He has helped put people together.”

He's been praised by the law enforcement community, as well as Sterling's family and the community leaders who said Sterling's death highlighted simmering tensions between law enforcement and the communities they serve — particularly black communities. Influential black community leaders have stood at his side as Edwards called for unity.

The Louisiana House Democratic Caucus released a statement rallying support for Edwards.

"In a moment of extreme despair, we want to lend support to members of the Baton Rouge community and applaud the leadership of our own caucus members, Gov. Edwards and Congressman (Cedric) Richmond," said caucus chairman Gene Reynolds, of Minden.

"Unfortunately, we have incidences to look back on, and we can learn from them," Carbo said in the days after Sterling's death. "He's cognizant of what's gone on in other places."

Officer shootings and shootings by law enforcement have become a divisive topic across America. Such incidences have led to frequent criticism of mayors, governors and other leaders and how they have responded. The governor of Missouri has been accused of being slow to act in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Both of the shootings in Baton Rouge have been mentioned repeatedly at conventions of the national political parties as they nominated their candidates for president in recent weeks.

Each has drawn response from President Barack Obama's administration. Each has also shifted a sometimes uncomfortable spotlight onto Louisiana and the law enforcement community that's so close to Edwards.

Legislation like the so-called "Blue Lives Matter" law recently adopted in Louisiana, which makes it a hate crime to target first responders, has generated controversy among those who see it as a pushback against the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Edwards signed and defended the controversial law as an effort to show support for law enforcement and firefighters who are targeted because of their jobs.

Just 10 days before the three Baton Rouge officers were gunned down, a mass shooting in Dallas took the lives of five officers there, furthering the narrative that officers have to be on high alert.

Edmonson praised Edwards for being quick to respond in situations like the officer shootings.

"It's not about an individual," Edmonson said during a recent radio interview. "It's about more than a moment. It's about changing a culture."

Edwards, who grew up in rural Amite, comes from a long line of law enforcement officers.

Edwards' brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather have all served as sheriffs of Tangipahoa Parish. Another brother is the police chief of Independence.

During his campaign, he won several coveted law enforcement endorsements, as well as the backing of black leaders.

In the weeks since the national spotlight has turned to Edwards' role of maintaining order in the wake of the two deadly shootings, he has often downplayed his own personal ties and instead focused on a broader support from Louisiana.

"It hits home to all of us," Edwards said during one news briefing, in which he visibly teared up as law enforcement leaders described the attack that left Baton Rouge police officers Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald and East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office Deputy Brad Garafola dead.

"I don't know if it's good or bad for our governor to cry, but I do on occasions like this," Edwards said during the conference, which was carried live on cable networks nationally.

The Baton Rouge officer shootings carried out by Gavin Long, of Kansas City, whom authorities say deliberately targeted law enforcement as retaliation to officer-involved incidences across the country, including Sterling's death, were the result of an "outsider" who wasn't from Louisiana. Long, the shooter, was killed by a Baton Rouge police sniper, ending the deadly encounter about 14 minutes after officers arrived on the scene of the B-Quik on Airline Highway.

Nearly 12 hours after he first received the call about the shooting, Edwards made it to church. He attended Mass at Christ the King on LSU's campus at 8 p.m. — the last local service of the evening.

The message that night: The prayer of St. Francis, commonly called the "Peace Prayer." Edwards went on to recite part of the prayer at a news briefing the following day: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy."

Edwards also continues to call for "patience" from those who are hurt by Sterling's killing and believe that justice can only come through prosecution of the officers involved.

"I'm asking everybody to be patient,” he said. “Typically these things take several weeks and maybe even months. I'm not trying to give a timeline, I'm just asking people to be patient.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.