The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council agreed Wednesday to increase public funds available to cover the legal costs for former Baton Rouge police officer Blane Salamoni in a suit filed against him on behalf of Alton Sterling's children.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2017 in state district court, claims that when Salamoni fired the shots that killed Sterling, the officer's decision exemplifies longstanding problems within the Baton Rouge Police Department, including a culture of entrenched racist attitudes and excessive force among some officers. The lawsuit also alleges the officers violated Sterling's constitutional rights and requests damages. 

Council members approved spending up to $37,500 for Salamoni's defense costs. Council approval is necessary for any contract over $17,500, so the resolution passed Wednesday was a request to increase the maximum compensation by $20,000.

It's standard procedure for public funds to be used to cover legal costs and settlements involving public officials, including police officers. Typically the Parish Attorney's Office would serve as counsel, but the office is representing the Baton Rouge Police Department — another defendant in the case — and declined to represent the two officers involved in the incident to avoid a conflict of interest. That's why the city contracted with an outside attorney to represent Salamoni.

Another request to increase the contract amount could come later because the case is ongoing. But interim Parish Attorney Andy Dotson told the council that the $37,500 "is our best estimate based on where we are right now and where the case appears to be going."

Mike Adams, an attorney representing Sterling's youngest children, said although the case continues to move toward a 2020 trial date, he is hoping the parties will reach a settlement agreement before then. He said such a resolution would be in the city's best interest because continuing litigation means mounting expenses for Baton Rouge taxpayers.

"It really becomes a question for the Metro Council of how they're using their resources — to continue having the lawyers fight, or come together at the negotiating table," he said. "I would hope that the council members, in their wisdom, would get serious about resolving this case and letting this city move forward."

The contract for Salamoni's defense is with Baton Rouge attorney Stephen Carleton. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

Howie Lake II, the other officer who responded to the call that resulted in Sterling's death, is also named as a defendant. The Parish Attorney's Office said Lake's legal costs are being handled the same way but haven't exceeded the allotted $17,500, and therefore haven't come before the Metro Council. Lake used a stun gun on Sterling during the struggle but didn't discharge his firearm.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul fired Salamoni last spring following months of criminal and internal affairs investigations. Lake received an unpaid suspension but has returned to the force. Both officers have appealed to Baton Rouge's civil service board, which oversees the discipline process for city police and firefighters.

The board received their appeals last spring and scheduled appeal hearings, which have since been pushed back multiple times at the request of attorneys involved. The latest schedule had Salamoni's slated for next week, but the board announced Wednesday it would hold a special meeting Thursday to consider a request for further postponement. The board has also agreed that Salamoni's hearing should come before Lake's because of overlapping information. 

Adams said he hopes attorneys on both sides can take advantage of that extra time before the civil service hearing and "all work together to fashion a global resolution to this problem and a settlement that's in the best interest of Baton Rouge."

Metro Councilman Matt Watson emphasized the significance of the case and the importance of dedicating enough time and resources to achieve an outcome that's fair to both sides.

"This is the single most important wrongful death suit this city has ever seen, and it's going to set a precedent," he said. "Every step of this process informs what we should do if anything like this ever happens again."

Councilwoman Tara Wicker said she also recognizes the litigation process takes time and resources, but she's hoping for a resolution in the near future.

"I know this is a difficult situation, and there are going to be people who aren't happy regardless of the outcome," she said. "But I'm hopeful there will be opportunity for some compromise where both parties can agree to bring closure to this issue so that the community can move forward, and these families can move forward."


Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.