In a split vote Wednesday, the East Baton Rouge Metro Council rejected a proposed $5 million settlement in the civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Alton Sterling's five children, who lost their father in a 2016 police shooting that ignited protests nationwide.
The measure required seven votes to pass, but only garnered support from six council members: Chauna Banks, LaMont Cole, Donna Collins-Lewis, Erika Green, Chandler Loupe and Tara Wicker.
Five other council members voted against the proposed settlement: Denise Amoroso, Dwight Hudson, Matt Watson, Trae Welch and Scott Wilson.
Councilwoman Jen Racca abstained from the vote.
The civil lawsuit, filed in 2017 against the city-parish, alleges the 2016 police shooting exemplified longstanding problems of racist attitudes and excessive force within the Baton Rouge Police Department. The lawsuit is inching toward a March 2021 trial date, now more than four years after the Black man was killed during a struggle with two White police officers outside a Baton Rouge convenience store.
Federal and state prosecutors declined to press charges against the officers involved, noting that Sterling reached for a handgun inside his pocket in the moments before the shooting.
During Wednesday's meeting, Cole said it's time, after more than four years, that Baton Rouge move beyond the issue and "begin a process of healing."
Cole said there's no reason Sterling should have been killed, no matter his background, and said that the father-of-five was doing the best he could after growing up in a city with a fractured and unequal school system, economy and community.
"We should definitely take responsibility to ensure that this doesn't have to happen to his children and that they grow up with a different opportunity than he had," Cole said.
Racca, who abstained from the vote, questioned whether the council had the authority to vote on a settlement without the recommendation of the parish attorney. She said there are some "serious issues of law" that have yet to be answered before she's convinced settling is the right decision.
"An offer of judgment may provide some closure, but I also believe that’s it’s a band-aid," Racca said. "I believe that there are some deeper issues, there are some departmental failures and if we settle this case we’ll never be able to see those failures."
Watson, who voted against the measure, said the fairest approach would be for the case to go to trial. He also said he couldn't support the settlement while having so many unanswered questions.
"I hope that we can get a lot of that information brought out by a fair trial that the judicial branch is designated for in the constitution," Watson said.
A resolution in the ongoing civil case appeared possible last year when attorneys for both sides agreed to participate in nonbinding mediation. That resulted in the $5 million figure, though the parish attorney's office disagreed with the valuation.
In an email sent to council members ahead of Wednesday's vote, the parish attorney's office said that while they would "would prefer a settlement over trial," the $5 million figure was excessive.
Brandon DeCuir, one of the lawyers representing Sterling's family, said they entered into mediation in good faith and compromised by agreeing to work with a mediator chosen by the city-parish. He called the city-parish's rejection of that decision offensive and said they're no longer interested in settling.
Banks, one of the supporters of the settlement, warned that the city-parish could potentially be on the hook for several millions of dollars more in legal fees if the city-parish loses the case. She cited a city-parish contract with the union that indemnifies officers sued in the course of their employment.
Parish Attorney Andy Dotson said the city-parish has already paid $179,000 to cover the legal fees for the two officers, and he expects that to rise to around $500,000 before heading to an appellate court.
Discussion of Sterling's death at the Metro Council typically draws a significant number of residents, but due to restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday's meeting was held virtually, with comments submitted online and read out loud.
Collins-Lewis initially asked that some comments be censored for their racist or derogatory language, but demurred after Banks said they reflect the racial climate of Baton Rouge and need to be heard.
"This is a preview of what a trial would look like," Banks said. "I think all of America needs to see what we're dealing with."
One public comment said the settlement would be a windfall for the mothers of Sterling's children, and predicted "shopping sprees" to follow. That led Racca to clarify that any settlement involving minors, such as this one, would be placed in a trust and could only be spent with the consent of a judge while they are minors.
Several other council members took issue with public comments that argued the two responding officers — Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, who are listed as defendants in the civil case — followed proper policing procedure.
Collins-Lewis said video of the altercation shows Lake had control over the situation and said the "scene exploded" when Salamoni arrived. Cole added, "I think all of us know that football tackling an individual who is not a threat to you is not proper police procedure."
Lawyers for East Baton Rouge Parish said a proposed $5 million settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Alton Sterling's fi…