Elected officials and religious leaders who have long called for the firing of Baton Rouge police officer Blane Salamoni said they were stunned Friday after finally viewing body camera footage from the night the officer fatally shot Alton Sterling in 2016.
Upon releasing the videos, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul announced that he had fired Salamoni. Paul also announced he was suspending Howie Lake II, the first officer to arrive at the Triple S Food Mart on that July 5, 2016, night, saying Lake violated the department's "command of temper" policy. The officers had been responding to a 911 call that a man matching Sterling’s description had threatened someone with a gun. A loaded gun was recovered from Sterling after he was shot.
Paul’s decision earned him praise from some who have watched the controversy unfold since the shooting occurred nearly two years ago while others — including the Baton Rouge Police Department union — said they still stand by Salamoni, Lake and their actions that night. Attorneys for Sterling’s family members, who have filed a lawsuit related to the shooting, said Friday that both officers should have been fired.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who called last year for the termination of Salamoni and discipline of Lake, released a statement that applauded the decision from her newly appointed police chief. Broome declined interview requests Friday from The Advocate, and she did not attend the news conference when Paul announced the punishments.
"I have placed my trust in Chief Paul and fully support his decision," the mayor-president said. "I am grateful for his leadership and his swift, decisive, and fair action on this matter."
Though Broome did not address the newly released videos in her statement, a number of others did. Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Sterling family, described Salamoni’s behavior as being “like a pit bull” and said it is a horrifying reality for many black people in their interactions with police.
Attorneys for the family held a news conference Friday evening, but Sterling's family members did not attend.
“What happened that July 5 night was wrong,” said Michael Adams, another attorney for the family. “And it was wrong, not because Alton Sterling was the person who was out of control, the Police Department was out of control.”
Reps. Ted James and C. Denise Marcelle, both Democrats who represent Baton Rouge, and Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker said they were devastated by what they witnessed on the videos.
The videos show Lake directing Sterling to place his hands on the hood of a car and show Salamoni, who arrived at the Triple S Food Mart moments after Lake, almost immediately place a gun to Sterling’s head while shouting profanities at him, telling him to comply.
Salamoni instructs Lake to “tase his ass” before the three fell to the ground. After Salamoni shoots Sterling, he repeatedly refers to him as a “stupid motherf*****” while searching his pockets and walking around the scene.
"Even after he shot the man, he’s shouting profanities after he’s dead," Marcelle said. "Who does that? What kind of animal was Salamoni? To talk to someone like he was less than human. It was ridiculous.”
Marcelle called the firing a "small piece of justice" and said she's hopeful the city will start to heal from it. James, an attorney, said he is even more frustrated that Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry did not criminally charge Salamoni for his actions.
The Rev. Dale Flowers of New Sunlight Baptist Church agreed, saying that the a grand jury deserved to view the videos made public Friday before determining whether Salamoni should be criminally charged. Landry did not bring the case to a grand jury.
“I recognize that simply not obeying the instructions of a police officer is resisting,” Flowers said. “But in the true sense of resisting, Mr. Sterling never resisted those police officers.”
James called the videos "worse than I thought” and mortifying. He said Salamoni’s actions were cowardly and “inherently evil,” and that he was especially troubled by the lack of remorse that the police officer seemed to show.
"You cannot with a good and clean heart look at that video and think that was OK," James said. “I’m mortified. This weekend of all weekends, to see something like that, so gruesome and know there’s no resurrection for Alton Sterling. I hate it for his family, I hate it for his children and I hate it for this community.”
But John McLindon, Salamoni's attorney, said the officer did not violate police policy, and that “none of this would have happened” had Sterling complied with the police officers' commands. McLindon has vowed to appeal Salamoni’s termination.
The Baton Rouge Union of Police released a statement Friday saying they stand behind both officers, and that police are faced with “many complicated and highly intense situations.” They said they expect a fair and impartial ruling when the discipline meted out to the two officers is reviewed by the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board.
John Delgado, a lobbyist for the Baton Rouge Union of Police and former member of the parish Metro Council, said Friday that the videos confirmed that Sterling refused to comply with orders as he struggled against the officers trying to pin him to a car. Delgado also defended the language from Salamoni, saying it’s a police tactic that allows police to de-escalate a situation and put themselves in charge. And Delgado said Salamoni’s continued profanity after Sterling was shot was a matter of adrenaline.
“I do not believe you will interview a single police officer who will tell you they weren’t trained to speak just like that," Delgado said.
Still, Wicker said, the language was the definition of unprofessionalism. Wicker recently created a community-police ambassadors program meant to help ease the tensions between Baton Rouge police and the communities they serve. She said that in creating that group, a repeat complaint she's heard about Baton Rouge police was their lack of professionalism.
Wicker, James, Marcelle and Flowers all emphasized the difference on camera between Salamoni’s behavior and Lake’s behavior. They mostly agreed that Lake’s three-day suspension seemed appropriate, and said Lake’s lack of firing his gun at Sterling showed that Sterling did not have to die at the hands of Salamoni.
Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based activist group that has pushed for police reforms such as hiring an independent police monitor, applauded Paul late Friday. The Rev. Lee T. Wesley, of Together Baton Rouge's executive committee, said Paul had “exactly the right vision” in challenging Baton Rouge to work toward police reform and higher pay for officers at the same time.
And Flowers said he hopes the time for healing has finally come, adding, “We’ve got to find a way to become one family in the city of Baton Rouge.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards also released a statement late Friday reiterating how disturbing the videos were. Edwards said the best way to remember Sterling and the three law enforcement officers fatally gunned down in 2016 is for people in Louisiana to “strengthen the bonds that unite us, rather than focus on the things that divide us.”