After two days spent listening to a cross-section of Baton Rouge — from first responders to families mourning slain officers and a man killed by police — U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch reflected Friday on her time in the capital city.
"It was certainly a very powerful message from everyone that I met with today how much they love Baton Rouge. This is a very closely connected community," she said when asked how her experience here compared to other cities she's visited during crises over police shootings.
The nation's top law enforcement official said she wants to push forward an ongoing conversation about how to heal the city and address deeply-rooted concerns involving race and community policing. She intended it to come not as a directive from Washington, D.C. but as a signal from the U.S. Department of Justice that the agency will support local grassroots efforts, she said.
The visit capped off a week of funerals and memorials and the end of arguably the most emotionally draining month the capital city has seen in years.
Lynch, at a memorial Thursday featuring Vice President Joe Biden, paid tribute to the three officers who were killed by a gunman here on July 17. By Friday, she'd broadened her approach to include time devoted to law enforcement officers, community leaders and the families of the fallen lawmen and of Alton Sterling, who was shot dead during a July 5 altercation with police.
In a city exhausted by shootings that have put residents and lawmen on high alert, leaders o…
But Lynch did not announce any new findings in the federal investigation into the police shooting death of Sterling, which had prompted days of protests in Baton Rouge prior to the law enforcement officers being killed. Lynch said Friday there is no timetable for the probe to be finished but promised it would be a thorough and fair investigation. She also said she could not speak about the probe into the actions of Gavin Long, the Missouri man who shot dead Baton Rouge officers Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald and Sheriff's deputy Brad Garafola.
The news media was not allowed to view the entirety of Lynch's meetings Friday. They included a gathering with some 60 first responders, a separate roundtable of some 20 community leaders, and a private session with four of Sterling's children and their mothers. Lynch had also met with the families of the three slain officers, as well as with the family of East Baton Rouge Sheriff's deputy Cpl. Nick Tullier, who remains in critical condition after being shot in the head and abdomen.
The Attorney General said she could not elaborate on what was said during the meetings with the families, but expressed that all hoped for peace and offered condolences to those who lost their lives this past month.
Several of the attendees of the roundtable said they appreciated Lynch's time and attention to Baton Rouge issues, but as with many such community dialogues, they said it remains unclear what will come of the conversation.
"It kind of was a scraping-the-surface kind of thing. The Attorney General took a lot of notes on what we were all saying, so hopefully she walks away with ideas and some themes that can help her in what she has to do going forward to help our community," said Max Minelli, a local rapper and artist who was invited by the Justice Department to the meeting.
After shots rang through Baton Rouge and wall-to-wall media coverage displayed protests, cri…
Earlier Friday, Lynch addressed a group of some 60 police officers, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, nurses, firefighters and other Baton Rouge first responders at First United Methodist Church on North Boulevard. She thanked them for their service and said she was impressed by their response to the July 17 shooting of the six law enforcement officers, leaving three dead and three wounded.
"I don't think that they ever would have thought that they would become this national symbol of not only tragedy, but also of how connected they were to their community," Lynch said about the slain officers.
Lynch told the group of first responders that her office is trying to help with financial assistance for the overtime costs police officers have incurred in recent weeks. The bill from local agencies on overtime this month is approaching some $3 million. She also asked what other type of assistance or training might help law enforcement and first responders prepare for the future, but complimented them on the training law enforcement had already undergone that helped them respond to the shooting.
"Thank you for everything that you did on that day, but also, thank you for everything that you did before that day," she said.
Before Lynch spoke, Walt Green, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana, also remembered the fallen officers and thanked their colleagues.
"As I went to the scene on that Sunday, I could not have been more impressed or moved by seeing the sight of hundreds of brothers and sisters in law enforcement who responded to the call," Green said.
At a session later on Friday, Lynch presided over a community roundtable featuring about 25 local leaders. Many were church or judicial representatives, including Juvenile Court Judge Pamela Taylor Johnson, Judge John Michael Guidry of the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, the Rev. Raymond Jetson of Star Hill Baptist Church and Father Joshua Johnson of St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
Lynch noted that her swearing-in as attorney general — on April 27, 2015 — came in the midst of uproar in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody. The atmosphere surrounding that event was significant in her approach toward her role, she said.
Lynch was joined at the head of a room in Baton Rouge's federal courthouse by other Justice Department officials, including Green; Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division; Synthia Taylor, director of the Community Relations Service's southwestern office; Ron Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services; and Paul Monteiro, Community Relations Services director.
Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection and one of the attendees, said he thought Lynch fostered a productive conversation.
"I told her this didn't just start happening with protests. This is what people of color have dealt with before. We talked about economic development and how the core of what leads to an Alton Sterling is the lack of economic development in north Baton Rouge," Chambers said. "Why does a man sell CDs at 12 o'clock at night? Because there's no economic opportunities in his community."
Sterling, who was known for selling CDs in front of a convenience store in north Baton Rouge, was armed in the early morning of July 5 when he was approached by police responding to a report of a man with a gun, according to police. Some have openly wondered why the officers didn't seem to already know Sterling, a regular outside the shop.
It would have been illegal for Sterling, who had a felony record, to be carrying a gun.
"I felt like I should have been impressed that the attorney general is listening," said Shamaka Schumake, executive director of Baton Rouge Organizing, who was one of the community leaders invited to the roundtable. "Which is great, but to be really candid with you, I don't (care) if she's listening, if things don't change."
Schumake added, "I don't believe it was just a photo op. I believe that she was using the weight of her office to start some honest conversation, but that she wasn't committing herself or her office to too much."
Some participants also noted that only about three or four people in the community roundtable were white, while the rest were people of color.
"Frankly, my first instinct was that I was glad that it was predominantly African American. Because at a lot of tables like that with influence, there are mostly white people there, and hardly ever any, or few black people," said Patti Snyder, pastor at University Presbyterian Church and a representative of Together Baton Rouge.
But Snyder, who's white, said much of the work ahead also has to be done by white people in Baton Rouge talking to one another about their racial privilege.
"It behooves us to educate ourselves. It's not up to the black community to educate us. We've expected the black community to do that for a long time, or it's come out that way anyway, because we aren't doing it, so the black community has taken it on," she said.
Lynch didn't directly answer a question about whether the Justice Department will conduct an investigation into the practices of local law enforcement and city agencies, similar to the sweeping probe the department did in Ferguson, Missouri after a black teenager was shot by a white officer there in 2014.
Lynch said the Justice Department's Community Relations Services — which by design is a relatively under-the-radar division — will continue to work with local actors to address the crisis.
"It is true that the eyes of the country, and of the world, are on you," Lynch said to the Baton Rouge crowd.