Federal authorities announced Tuesday that the criminal investigation into the death of Alton Sterling — a Baton Rouge man who was shot dead by a police officer on July 5 — is a "top priority" and is still underway, but that there's no timetable for the review to be finished.
The news release from the office of U.S. Attorney Walt Green comes amid calls from some in Baton Rouge for investigators to work more quickly and for the two officers involved in the altercation to be held accountable.
Green's prosecutors, along with their Washington-based colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI, are handling the probe into Sterling's killing. The 37-year-old Sterling, who was black, was shot dead during a scuffle with two white Baton Rouge Police officers outside a corner store on North Foster Drive that began after the officers responded to a call about a man who had threatened someone with a gun outside the shop.
"To date, a team of career federal prosecutors, FBI agents and support personnel have devoted hundreds of hours to the investigation," the statement says. "The investigation remains ongoing, and will conclude only when we have gathered, reviewed and evaluated all available evidence. There is no timetable for when this will be finished."
Green didn't answer questions about what prompted him to produce a statement on Tuesday about the case. Last month, state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, released a letter calling on the federal investigators to publicly release more information about the probe.
James, who has led peaceful marches in honor of Sterling, said he's disappointed in the U.S. Attorney's statement.
"He promised a level of transparency. This pitiful statement doesn't represent the promises he made on multiple occasions," James said, explaining that Green had said he'd keep him apprised of how many witnesses have been interviewed and how many videos have been reviewed, as well as provide a timeline of the probe.
Green did not specifically respond to those comments, but said he can't speak further on the topic even though he realizes it's generated "great public interest."
Veda Sterling Washington Abusaleh, one of Alton Sterling's aunts, said Tuesday she felt disrespected that not only is the federal investigation not finished, but that she and her family members haven't been notified of any updates.
"It's sad that before they reach out to the family, and tell us anything, they're gonna put it on the news, or in the newspaper. That's crazy," she said. "It's sad. I have no faith in the justice system, and in Louisiana, none at all. It's horrible that this happened to my family."
Cell phone footage of the shooting, which was disseminated publicly within hours of the death, showed one of the officers firing into Sterling's chest as he lay pinned down on his back on the ground. A search warrant for the Triple S Food Mart's surveillance tapes alleged that Sterling, who was known for selling CD's in the convenience store's parking lot, had a handgun in his front pocket and was reaching for it just before he was shot.
The killing — and perhaps the fact that it was quickly followed by the cell phone videos — prompted protests and renewed national attention to incidents involving white police officers and black residents.
Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, the lawmen in the altercation with Sterling, remain on paid administrative leave as of Tuesday, said Baton Rouge Police spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely. Salamoni's attorney, John McLindon, did not return a call about the statement Tuesday, and Lake's lawyer, Fred Crifasi, said he had no response to the news.
A source previously told the Advocate that Salamoni is the officer who killed Alton Sterling.
Baton Rouge Police Union spokesman Sgt. C. Bryan Taylor said he did not have any comment on the active investigation.
Late last month, activists filed into a Baton Rouge City Hall meeting about police reform, saying their decision not to hold protests in recent months may shift now that three months have elapsed since Sterling's death.
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The demonstrations, which escalated for days in the capital city immediately following the killing and resulted in almost 200 arrests, largely stopped after six lawmen in Baton Rouge were ambushed and shot by lone gunman Gavin Long, who'd published social media tirades against police brutality of black men in general. Long killed three of the law enforcement officers: Baton Rouge Police Officer Matthew Gerald, Cpl. Montrell Jackson, and East Baton Rouge Sheriff's deputy Brad Garafola. Nick Tullier, a sheriff's deputy who was seriously injured, has remained in the hospital or at a rehabilitation center since the July 17 attack.
Long, who was killed by tactical officers, was not believed to be have been in attendance at any of the protests over Alton Sterling or linked to any of the organizers.
James said community members who want justice in Alton Sterling's death have been patient but are growing restless.
"We've upheld our end of the bargain. The community has done what was asked of it, and (Green's) office his failed to live up to the promises made," James said.
Protesters have said that the lack of a conclusion to the Alton Sterling probe is especially troubling in light of an incident last month in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where an officer was charged with manslaughter by the local district attorney's office and arrested days after she was accused of fatally shooting an unarmed motorist.
In Ferguson, Missouri, where a white officer's killing of a black teenager on Aug. 9, 2014 spurred weeks of demonstrations, it took three months and 15 days for a local grand jury to decide in late November of that year to not indict the officer in Michael Brown's death. A parallel Justice Department probe, which also found no wrongdoing by officer Darren Wilson, was finished the following March.