A resolution could come sooner than expected in the ongoing civil case against Baton Rouge leaders in which attorneys representing Alton Sterling's five children have alleged the 2016 police shooting exemplified longstanding problems of racist attitudes and excessive force within the department.
The lawsuit was filed in 2017 and continues crawling toward an April 2020 trial date. Among the defendants are the city of Baton Rouge and its police department in addition to Blane Salamoni, the former officer who while on the force killed Sterling during a violent struggle.
Attorneys on both sides have previously expressed their shared desire for a settlement while simultaneously proclaiming the unreasonable demands of their opponents. But discussion at Wednesday evening's Metro Council meeting indicates an agreement could finally be on the horizon — more than three years after Sterling's death ignited nationwide protests about police brutality.
The children of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a white Baton Rouge police officer just under a year ago, alle…
Metro Councilman Chandler Loupe asked the parish attorney's office to send a formal request for mediation to the plaintiffs, saying he hopes to reach a settlement before Christmas. His recent statements came after both sides indicated earlier this summer that settlement talks had fallen apart.
"I think oftentimes we forget there are children involved in this case," Loupe said during Wednesday's meeting. He expressed a desire to "put it behind us, do what's in the best interest of everybody — the city, the kids involved in this case. I think that's the approach that we need to take right now."
Loupe said the mediation would be nonbinding, meaning a third party could work with both sides to reach an agreement, but neither would be required to accept the recommended resolution. If the mediation is unsuccessful, the case would return to court and proceed as before.
Parish Attorney Andy Dotson said starting the mediation process soon could theoretically result in a settlement before January. But he noted his office would have to prepare for such meetings, saying "you just can't go in there without any guns in your holster."
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Mike Adams, an attorney representing Sterling's three youngest children in the case, disputed Dotson's assertion that plaintiffs haven't previously expressed their willingness to participate in settlement talks.
"I'm pleasantly surprised that the city is moving toward openly discussing mediation," Adams said. "We've been asking for this for over a year as one of the possible ways of resolving this case."
Attorneys for the Sterling family filed notices of deposition earlier this month for Baton Rouge's mayor and police chief, which defendants have opposed.
Adams said he believes city officials are reacting to the potential depositions in their decision to consider mediation. But Loupe said the process is often routinely used in civil cases and he's surprised it hasn't already been seriously considered in this one.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul fired Salamoni in March 2018 just months after taking over department leadership and following the conclusion of criminal investigations that resulted in no charges against the officer. Salamoni appealed his termination before the local civil service board, and representatives on both sides hoped to reach a global settlement agreement that would resolve the discipline appeal case and the civil suit together.
But officials announced last month they had decided to address the matters separately because a settlement in the lawsuit seemed impossible. That's when Paul announced an agreement in the discipline appeal, allowing Salamoni to resign from the department instead of being fired.
During his speech announcing the agreement, the chief also blasted past department leaders, saying they ignored multiple warning signs in Salamoni's behavior and should have never hired him in the first place. Paul apologized to the Sterling family and the public, not only for Salamoni's actions but for the department's contributions to the climate of mistrust between residents and police that reached a boiling point in the aftermath Sterling's death.
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Attorneys for the Sterling family have since acknowledged that Paul's comments could likely affect the outcome of the ongoing civil case.
"We are learning more and more about the culture and practices of the Baton Rouge Police Department, and the chief helped expose some of that behavior during his public remarks," Adams said. "It helps our case because he legitimizes the things we've been saying."
Adams argued in a recent motion that defendants' attempts to avoid sitting for deposition is "a cheap attempt … not to be completely transparent."
"For the defendants to hide behind the excuse of not wanting the public to know the details of this investigation is unconscionable," he wrote. "To the chief's credit, he has shown a willingness to be transparent. Instead he is being stymied or chastised."
However, defendants argue that neither the mayor nor the police chief has "any personal firsthand knowledge which would lead to the discovery of admissible evidence" in the case since both assumed their current positions after the Sterling shooting.
A judge is expected to rule Monday on whether the depositions will happen.
Court filings also show the city is arguing it has limited responsibility to compensate the Sterling family — up to $1 million in damages, if awarded. But attorneys for the family argue the city is fully responsible thanks to language in the police department's union contract. No ruling has been made on that issue.