Two Baton Rouge policemen received the long-awaited word this week that they will not face civil-rights charges in the shooting death of Alton Sterling, but officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II have a long way to go before returning to duty.
As new details of their fatal encounter with Sterling emerged with the closing of the federal probe on Wednesday, calls have renewed for their termination, with Sterling family members, some Baton Rouge lawmakers and others saying that if they won't be criminally charged, they should at least lose their jobs.
The graphic cellphone videos that captured the shooting death of Alton Sterling last summer …
Friends and family members of Sterling took particular exception to Salamoni's actions, which included threatening and cussing at Sterling and pointing a gun at his head within seconds of the officers arrival in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart.
"At a minimum, these officers ought to be disciplined and fired," said Michael Adams, an attorney for Sterling's three youngest children.
Both officers remained on paid leave while the federal inquiry unfolded, and they will remain sidelined while state Attorney General Jeff Landry determines whether to pursue state charges in Sterling's death. An internal affairs investigation begun around the same time as the 10-month federal investigation remains ongoing, a Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman said.
A 10-month investigation into the confrontation with two Baton Rouge policemen that left Alt…
Civil-rights charges carry a high burden of proof, one federal authorities on Wednesday said couldn't be met in Sterling's death despite disturbing footage of his death that prompted days of protests in Baton Rouge last summer.
But numerous community leaders and elected officials have argued the officers should be immediately fired, asking whether either officer could remain an effective policeman in the wake of a controversy that drew national attention and pointing to accounts of Salamoni's language as part of a growing body of public evidence against them. Other lawmakers were less certain, saying they wanted to see the process play out more before the BRPD takes action against the officers.
An attorney for Blane Salamoni, the Baton Rouge police officer who fatally shot Alton Sterli…
A number of law enforcement experts told The Advocate they also doubt the officers will ever again wear a badge.
Salamoni drew his handgun and pointed it at Sterling's head within 20 seconds of arriving in the convenience store parking lot where Sterling allegedly brandished a gun earlier that night. With his gun aimed at Sterling, federal officials told Sterling's family, Salamoni said, "I'm going to kill you, bitch," according to L. Chris Stewart, an attorney for Sterling's two oldest children.
Two law enforcement officials who reviewed body-camera footage of the shooting said Salamoni shouted profanities and repeatedly threatened to shoot Sterling, though they recalled Salamoni's exact words differed slightly from the quote relayed by Stewart. One source said Salamoni used the word "shoot" not "kill."
Criminal defense attorneys representing the officers both declined to comment on calls for their firing and the internal affairs investigation on Thursday. Salamoni's attorney, John McLindon, referred questions to another lawyer working with the police union, who didn't respond to messages.
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Alton Sterling's family said Wednesday they are counting on the state to bring criminal char…
The Baton Rouge Police Department regularly waits until after parallel criminal investigations are concluded before the chief decides how or whether to punish an officer accused of a crime, said Lt. Jonny Dunnam, a department spokesman who spent a number of years working in the internal affairs division.
It isn't clear how far along the internal affairs investigation into the shooting is. Dunnam declined to comment on what evidence they've reviewed, though an attorney for Salamoni said the officer had submitted to a compulsory interview with internal investigator, questioning conducted under so-called "Garrity warning" and inadmissible in criminal court because officers are required to answer even potentially incriminating questions.
Dunnam said criminal investigators usually provide evidence and refer potential policy violations to internal affairs investigators working the same case. But the team of federal agents and prosecutors who poured over the evidence in the Sterling case haven't turned over new evidence or findings as their investigation proceeded, Dunnam said, something he expected to change with the federal probe now closed.
Whether internal affairs investigators with Baton Rouge police had access to evidence independently remained unclear. A federal judge placed at least one piece of evidence in the case — Sterling's autopsy report — under seal, and Dr. William "Beau" Clark, the parish coroner, said the terms of the judge's order prohibited him from saying whether he could provide it to internal investigators.
The revelations on Wednesday provided the first new significant public information in the case since federal authorities took over within days of the shooting. Acting Baton Rouge U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson provided a public account of the fatal confrontation shortly after providing an more detailed version to Sterling's family during a private, nearly two-hour meeting.
Federal officials sharply criticized Salamoni's actions and called them "disturbing" during the private meeting Wednesday, attorneys for the family said.
"They hands-down agree the actions of the police officers that night were outrageous, were inappropriate, were not following procedure, were unexplainable," Stewart said.
The new details of the shooting from federal officials only solidified what many around Baton Rouge already felt, said state Rep. Ted James, a north Baton Rouge Democrat who played an active role in protests over Sterling's death. Firing the officers, James said, would go a long way toward building confidence in the police department from those angry over the killing.
"For the community, that tells us that police officers, when they violate policy, they are taken off of the force," James said. "That goes a long way toward establishing trust."
"I wholeheartedly believe that some of the relief could be by firing them and let that play out the way it needs to play out for them to prove their case," said Democratic Councilwoman Erika Green, pointing to a case earlier this week in suburban Dallas, where a Balch Springs officer was fired after shooting and killing a high school freshman who was riding in a car with friends.
But, even from those who've called Sterling's killing an injustice, calls for the officers' immediate firings weren't unanimous. Council members LaMont Cole and Tara Wicker, both Democrats, both said more investigation is needed before that step. And James, who earlier this year introduced a bill in the Legislature to limit the number of months an officer can collect a paycheck while on leave, said he's also wary of moving too quickly and falling afoul of the officers' civil service rights.
"I don't want the city in a long, drawn-out legal battle, either," said James.
Others said the Justice Department investigation turned up no reason to fire the officers, and that the attorney general's investigation should further help to establish whether Salamoni and Lake acted rightly or wrongly with Sterling.
Republican Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso said he will stand by Salamoni and Lake if the attorney general's investigation also finds them in no violation of state law. And former Metro Councilman John Delgado, now a lobbyist for the BRPD union, said the officers are still entitled to Civil Service protections and due process.
"Any calls for terminating the officers, or for terminating Salamoni because I think that's the cause-du-jour right now — any of those calls are premature," Delgado said.
Former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who also led the Nashville Metropolitan Police and the Washington State Patrol and now teaches criminology at Loyola University, said he held off on considering discipline for officers until after criminal detectives wrapped up their investigations.
Moving forward with both investigations simultaneously risked tainting a possible criminal case against a policeman, Serpas said, a lesson learned with great difficulty in New Orleans, where the U.S. Department of Justice alleged in an extensive investigation that detectives for several years after Hurricane Katrina intentionally crossed administrative and criminal investigators to shield fellow cops from justice.
Holding off on a firing or other disciplinary action for months as the criminal investigation plays out "can be frustrating to people and families, and I certainly always understood that," Serpas said. "If you truly want justice and you truly want accountability, you can't rush investigations."
But Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has written extensively about police accountability, disagreed, saying he saw little reason to hold off on firing the officers the department reviewed the case.
“This is another one of those lawful but awful cases,” Walker added, criticizing Salamoni’s use of profanity. “It could’ve had a different outcome.”
Joseph Giacalone, a former New York City police detective and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it would better for both the officers and the Baton Rouge Police Department "to go their separate ways." He said Sterling's death polarized the community too much for the policemen to remain effective.
"There's zero chance that they will ever see another uniform again, and even if they did stay, they're going to be kept inside somewhere," Giacalone said.
It's not unheard of, however, for officers involved in high-profile killings to return to their jobs. Daniel Pantaleo, the New York police officer who placed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2014, remained on the force after a grand jury declined to indict him in Garner's controversial death.
"It's a lot easier to hide somebody in a city of 8 million than down in Baton Rouge," Giacalone said.
Another question that has emerged is whether it will be safe for the officers to return to active duty. Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Missouri, a shooting that sparked national protests, resigned from the Ferguson Police Department a few months after Brown's death, citing safety concerns for himself and fellow officers. Wilson, who also was not charged in Brown's death, went into hiding during the controversy.
Jill Craft, a Baton Rouge attorney who has represented police officers for years, said the officers, at a minimum, could face discipline for being “discourteous.”
“The bigger question I’d have is what the department is waiting for,” she said. “There’s no requirement that people cool their heels while we wait for things, while we, the taxpayers, keep them on the payroll.”
“I don’t understand why there’s a sit-back-and-just-wait,” Craft added. “If there’s an officer that violated policy — as the Baton Rouge Police Department deals with all the time — they generally act and act swiftly.”
Advocate staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this report.