Federal prosecutors will not bring criminal charges against either of the Baton Rouge city policemen involved in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling during a confrontation outside a convenience store in July, according to national news reports.
No official announcement has been made, but officials across the Baton Rouge area have been waiting on the U.S. Department of Justice to announce a decision — and had expected to be told beforehand so they could be prepared. The leak of the news to the Washington Post, which broke the story, angered members of Sterling's family, who called it an insult, and aggravated many local officials, who said the way it was handled complicated their response plans.
Not seeing the video below? Click here.
People gathered for a vigil Tuesday at the Triple S Food Mart on North Foster in Baton Rouge…
Janene Tate, communications director for Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, said Tuesday that the mayor did not receive word on the decision from the Justice Department. Likewise, Gov. John Bel Edwards's office sent out a statement saying he had not been notified of a timeline or the decision.
“I am appalled that this news, whether true or false, has been disseminated without a formal decision being relayed to the Sterling family first," Broome said in a statement. "Also, no one in my office or the governor’s office has been notified by the U.S. Attorney’s office of a decision or timeline. I am still in consistent contact with the governor’s office. As I’ve said before, when I know something, the people of Baton Rouge will know — and we will get through it together.”
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said late Tuesday afternoon that she w…
Justin Bamberg, a South Carolina attorney representing Quinyetta McMillion and her 16-year-old son with Alton Sterling, Cameron, as well as another 10-year-old Sterling son, said Tuesday the family had not been made aware of the DOJ decision.
"We can only hope that, prior to any formal or informal announcement from the Department of Justice, they'll take the time to sit down and let Alton's family and children know what the results of their investigation and conclusions will be," he said.
Alton Sterling's cousin, Krystal, described late Tuesday how much her family struggled learning from social media about the decision rather than from DOJ officials themselves.
She said the family is still hoping the reports saying the federal government will not pursue charges against the officers will prove to be false.
"I hope it's not true," she said, standing outside the family's brick home with brown shutters near Howell Park. "I pray it's not true."
On Tuesday afternoon, East Baton Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said he was meeting with local law enforcement leaders, including Carl Dabadie Jr., the Baton Rouge police chief. He said local authorities still had not received confirmation of the decision from the Justice Department, though he added the timing of the report fell within an approximate timetable the feds had provided him.
UPDATE: Washington Post: Officers involved in Alton Sterling shooting will not be charged
"We're better prepared today than we were last year," Gautreaux said, referring to the massive protests immediately after the shooting. "We're ready."
The shooting deeply divided public opinion in Baton Rouge and pushed calls for a revamp of the Baton Rouge Police Department to the fore in the fall election campaigns for mayor and Metro Council.
It also marked the start of a tumultuous summer in Baton Rouge, as the shooting is believed to have inspired a lone gunman named Gavin Long from Missouri to come to the city. Two days after Sterling's funeral, he opened fire at law enforcement officers at a convenience store on Airline Highway, not far from police headquarters, hitting six officers. Two Baton Rouge police officers — Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald — were killed, along with Baton Rouge Sheriff's Deputy Brad Garafola. Another deputy, Nick Tullier, is still being treated for serious injuries sustained in the attack.
Less than a month later, torrential rains led to widespread flooding in the Baton Rouge area, swamping tens of thousands of homes. Law enforcement was again called up for long days of duty, as they had been after protests following Sterling's death.
The cellphone videos of the July 5 confrontation that left Alton Sterling dead in the Triple…
The fatal confrontation between Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, and the two white officers occurred around 12:30 a.m. on July 5. The officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, responded to a 911 call from a man claiming he'd been threatened with a gun by someone who matched Sterling's description in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart.
The two publicly released videos — one taken by an unidentified woman in a car outside the store, the other by the store's owner, Abdullah Muflahi — captured the officers ordering Sterling to the ground, then tasing him and wrestling him onto his back. One of the officers yelled "Gun!" and ordered Sterling not to move before Salamoni — identified by a source with knowledge of the incident as the shooter — fired.
The shooting was also captured by the store's surveillance system, which was seized by police and has not yet been publicly released. Both officers were wearing body cameras, though police officials said the cameras fell off during the encounter.
Sterling often sold copies of CDs and DVDs outside the Triple S Food Mart following a stint in prison.
Police officials repeatedly declined to comment on the case, but a Baton Rouge police officer wrote in a report that Lake and Salamoni spotted the butt of a handgun protruding from Sterling's pocket and saw him reach for the weapon before he was killed.
Muflahi, who witnessed the shooting, told The Advocate that the officers were the aggressors and that, although Sterling was armed, he didn't draw or reach for the gun. Because of prior criminal convictions, Sterling was legally barred from carrying a firearm.
Salamoni and Lake have remained on paid administrative leave during the investigation into the shooting. Attorneys for both officers Tuesday declined to comment about the news reports their clients would not be charged, saying they were waiting for the official decision.
The Justice Department probe focused in part on the police-worn body camera footage that captured Sterling's controversial death, recordings that included explicit exchanges in which Salamoni can be heard shouting profanities at — and repeatedly threatening — Sterling before shooting him, according to two law enforcement officials who have reviewed the footage.
During their investigation, federal authorities contacted the Baton Rouge Police Department several months after Sterling's death and asked for access to body camera footage of both officers' previous everyday encounters with other citizens, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the request. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
Federal authorities are not likely to release the body camera footage, in large part because the state criminal investigation that will follow has not started.
Baton Rouge Police detectives began the investigation of Sterling's death. However, amid street demonstrations and criticism from elected leaders, they turned the investigation over to the FBI and the Justice Department the next day. The federal probe was conducted in near-complete secrecy, with no public updates or release of information about the investigation until the news broke Tuesday.
Hillar Moore III, the East Baton Rouge District Attorney whose office would normally now review the case, recused himself because of longstanding ties to Salamoni’s parents, both of whom spent years with the Baton Rouge Police Department. Moore’s decision to step aside means that Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican former police officer and sheriff’s deputy from St. Martinville, has jurisdiction over the case.
The summer protests over Sterling's death began hours after the shooting and grew as the graphic cellphone videos of the incident were circulated and published. Peaceful but raucous gatherings at the site of Sterling's death continued for days.
Large demonstrations the following weekend along Airline Highway by police headquarters and marches downtown attracted thousands. Hundreds of police and sheriff's deputies — reinforced by officers from across the state — faced off against protesters in successive demonstrations.
Nearly 200 protesters were arrested during all of the protests, most for obstruction of a highway. The arrests and the police response drew much criticism, with some questioning if officers responded too aggressively. Law enforcement officials countered that they only intervened in the demonstrations when required to, such as when protesters occupied busy streets.
A separate investigation into the shooting by the Baton Rouge Police Department's Internal Affairs division — charged with determining whether Salamoni or Lake violated BRPD policies during the encounter — is also pending.
Once concluded, Dabadie, the police chief, will decide whether either will be cleared of wrongdoing or disciplined by the department.
The legal standard for a criminal prosecution of an officer in this kind of case comes down to the question of whether Salamoni reasonably feared for his life when he pulled the trigger, experts have said.
Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and former policeman who tracks cases of officer misconduct, said federal civil rights investigations have historically been used to hold cops accountable when local prosecutors are either unable or unwilling to bring charges in state court.
Stinson said state and federal charges carry very different burdens of proof for a jury to weigh, factors he said also color the type of evidence federal or local investigators might pursue during the course of a criminal probe. Among other things, federal civil rights charges require proving intent on the part of the officers, Stinson said, while state laws can allow for lesser charges like manslaughter or negligent homicide.
"Those federal statutes are really designed for cases where states failed to prosecute police officers. There are totally different elements of the crime," Stinson said.
Although the investigation was begun by President Barack Obama's Justice Department, several Baton Rouge leaders noted that the decision was made by the Trump administration and new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
It marks the first time the Sessions' Justice Department has made a decision not to charge a law enforcement officer in a shooting. The news broke on the same day that a former South Carolina officer, Michael Slager, entered a guilty plea in federal court on civil rights charges for shooting a Charleston man in the back in April 2015.
While the Sterling shooting kicked off a tumultuous time for Baton Rouge, it also was part of a string of high-profile incidents across the country. The day after Sterling was shot, 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot during a traffic stop in Minnesota. The next day, five Dallas law enforcement officers were killed, shot by a gunman targeting them at a peaceful demonstration in response to the Castile and Sterling shootings.
Law enforcement shootings of black men have come under increasingly intense scrutiny in recent years, in large part because of cellphone or other video that provides a window into what happened. Parts of both the Castile and Sterling incidents were taped, as was the South Carolina shooting of Walter Scott.
Still, many observers in Baton Rouge expressed frustration that charges often don't follow in cases where an officer shoots someone while in the line of duty.
"I anticipated that this would be the decision, based upon what I've seen throughout the nation, and the level of proof you need for violating someone's civil rights is a high standard," said state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge.
"I had no confidence in this Justice Department to pursue anything," said state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge.
James said he's drafting a letter to Landry requesting that the attorney general appoint a special prosecutor to review the case for possible state charges. Asked whether he had faith in Landry to make a fair decision in the case, James responded, "Zero."
The leader of the local chapter of the NAACP, Mike McClanahan, echoed several other Baton Rouge activists and black leaders in saying he was hardly surprised to hear federal prosecutors wouldn't pursue charges. But McClanahan said he still viewed that decision as an injustice, and said the 10-month wait for word on the investigation only heightened tensions.
"People are just kind of fed up with being dumped on and trampled on," McClanahan said.
McClanahan said he anticipated protests and demonstrations following the news but hopes to direct those at Landry, now that the state attorney will get the case.
"We need to take our frustrations to the state legislature and Landry's office," McClanahan said. "We want him to make a determination whether he's found any state criminal violations."
On Tuesday evening, as news of the leaked decision spread, people began congregating at the Triple S store where Sterling was shot, joining a previously planned vigil at the location.
The multigenerational vigil began with two activists from Baton Rouge High. Raheejah Flowers, 16, and 18-year-old Myra Richardson asked that everyone gathered do more than protest, but stay invested in the issues raised by Sterling's shooting.
The teens read out Attorney General Landry's phone number, urging people call his office to voice their anger and discontent.
"We're not working for a moment, but for a movement," Flowers said to a crowd gathered to honor the life of Sterling.
Sterling's aunt, Veda Sterling, also spoke at the vigil.
"We haven't heard anything, the district attorney has not called us and told us anything," Veda Sterling said. "The lawyer called and said they have not made a decision."
She said the rumors are flying around to see how people will react, but she reminded everyone that they are men and women of God, and said she has put her trust in Him .
"We need closure, we need a conviction, we need justice," Veda Sterling said.
About 200 people showed up at the Triple S vigil, but only a handful of people turned up Tuesday night at Baton Rouge Police Headquarters, waving placards at passing vehicles.
Back at Triple S, Keon Preston, a community activist with Stop the Violence, echoed the call for justice and voiced his anger.
"I'm pissed," said Preston. "I support police (but) I'm pro justice, I'm for what's right. I don't think what's going on with this situation is right, at all."
Others said they were more upset that the family and local leaders were not told of the decision before it was released than about the actual decision. Most say they were not expecting the officers to be indicted.
Arthur "Silky Slim" Reed said he told Sterling's aunt, Sandra Sterling, of the leak. She was supposed to find out about the decision from authorities six hours before it was publicly released.
"They should have heard it from the Department of Justice," Reed said. "They don't need to hear from strangers."
Staff writers Andrea Gallo, Steve Hardy, and Emma Discher contributed to this report.
Warning: This video contains graphic footage of the shooting. Not seeing the video? Click here.