The people of Baton Rouge, in the words of their mayor, “have a wound.”
And while information on the death of Alton Sterling dribbled out Wednesday, many local leaders couldn’t come up with enough to explain why the man was shot by police — at least not yet, not definitively.
Congressman Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, was critical of police, saying witness accounts of Sterling’s death are “troubling,” and the videos circulating of the shooting are “terrifying.”
“I have real concerns about the use of excessive force,” Richmond said.
“It is very hard for me to believe that two officers with a guy on the ground … that that was an appropriate use of deadly force.”
But there are videos that have not been released and perhaps other witnesses with another perspective, Richmond noted. Though he raised a pointed question about their behavior, the evidence on hand Wednesday wasn’t enough for him to outright condemn the officers involved.
Not everyone held back.
“Certainly this killing of Mr. Sterling was not acceptable. We’re better than that in Baton Rouge,” said mayoral candidate Sharon Weston Broome.
The former state senator said the witness video she’s seen of the incident “certainly” makes the officers’ actions seem inappropriate and excessive.
“There needs to be serious, expedited attention to what took place,” Weston Broome said.
Others are waiting for more information.
“We don’t know the facts. We just don’t know,” said councilman and mayoral candidate John Delgado.
Did something happen before the film started rolling? Did Sterling reach for a gun? It’s hard to tell, and the video circulating by Wednesday morning (another surfaced later that day) wasn’t enough to draw conclusions, he said.
“We need to gather the facts. We need to remain calm,” Delgado said.
Maintaining calm was a constant refrain throughout the day.
“We want people to protest and speak their mind,” East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said in a news conference. But he, police and other elected leaders pleaded with would-be demonstrators not to cause any further harm to the city. Several made vague and fleeting references to nonlocal organizations that may foment violence.
The city is looking beyond its own resources to investigate Sterling’s death — the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to take the case.
Mayor-president and congressional candidate Kip Holden said he and city staff were in touch with federal authorities the morning Sterling was shot.
“We’re not here to hide anything at all,” Holden said of the decision to call in the Department of Justice.
Some, however, were critical of city officials. State legislator and mayoral candidate C. Denise Marcelle questioned whether the officers were interrogated about the shooting in a timely manner. Several also noted the officers’ body cameras allegedly fell off their uniforms and did not fully capture what happened.
Metro councilwoman Tara Wicker showed up to a news conference with the mayor and police chief but took a seat in the back corner. She wasn’t there to address the media, but because she had served on the committee that signed off on the body cameras and wanted to know why they weren’t going to be able to show what happened.
State senator and mayoral candidate Bodi White used to be a sheriff’s deputy and said that, while he doesn’t know whether the two officers involved behaved appropriately or not, he can appreciate their situation.
“I policed that very spot 30 years ago, so I understand,” White said.
“They just learn to fear for their lives every day.”
The state senator said Baton Rouge ought to address the root problem — crime — which White said is “out of control.”
Moore, the district attorney, told a room full of journalists, including many from national outlets, that Baton Rouge has made strides in public safety and that murders in particular have dropped substantially.
“Despite the issue that you’re here for, this is a very good community,” he told reporters.
Another city shaken by a police shooting has reached out to Baton Rouge. Holden said he received a call from the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, where Freddie Gray died in police custody, sparking protests and looting that prompted the declaration of a state of emergency and the deployment of the National Guard. Three officers were brought to trial — one case ended in a mistrial, and the other two were acquitted.
“That call meant a lot. Baltimore has gone through the same thing we’re experiencing in Baton Rouge,” Holden said.
When asked if he expected violent protests in Baton Rouge, Holden said some people might like to see everything “explode,” but the community needs to think of what they want to accomplish.
“At some point the healing must begin,” he said.
The case is in the justice system, Holden said, and he will wait to see how it turns out.
“I’m not going to speculate. I don’t know where it’s gonna end,” he said.
Sterling’s death reached as far as the presidential campaign trail Wednesday. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said his death underscores the need for more police training and support for local governments that refer police-involved homicides to independent agencies to investigate.
“Something is profoundly wrong when so many Americans have reason to believe that our country doesn’t consider them as precious as others because of the color of their skin,” she said in a written statement from her campaign.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.