Although there have been no charges against officers involved in the shooting of Alton Sterling, who died one year ago today, the U.S. Department of Justice investigation appears to have been sharply critical of the actions of the two Baton Rouge Police Department officers who killed him on July 5.
But that is not the final word. The investigation is now in the hands of state Attorney General Jeff Landry, the latest chapter in a tragedy that drew international attention to Louisiana last summer. Sterling's family recently filed suit against the city, the Baton Rouge Police Department and the officers involved.
When he announced that the Justice Department was closing the 10-month investigation into the shooting without charges, Corey Amundson, the acting U.S. attorney for Baton Rouge, stressed the high burden of proof in federal criminal civil rights cases, which require a greater degree of intent than many Louisiana criminal charges. Sterling, who was armed, died outside a Baton Rouge convenience store in the early morning hours of July 5, 2016, after a struggle with police. The incident, caught on video, prompted protests here and across the country and raised questions about whether race had shaped how events unfolded. Sterling was black, and the officer who shot him is white.
Alton Sterling Jr. tells his mother he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.
The Sterling family, and the people of Baton Rouge, waited months for the DOJ investigation to conclude. Given that timing, we believe that so long as it is consistent with a thorough review, Landry should move as quickly as possible to indicate what his office will do, whether prosecuting the officers or taking the case to a grand jury, or deciding not to prosecute.
Unfortunately, East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has intruded in this overlong process with a call to Police Chief Carl Dabadie to fire Blane Salamoni, the officer who fired the fatal shots last summer.
There may well be reason to discipline or dismiss officers Salamoni or Howie Lake II, but it is premature to decide those questions until Landry's investigation is complete. The officers have been on leave with pay since the Sterling shooting. An internal investigation by the department has been conducted but not made public — yet.
Baton Rouge police on Friday afternoon released the letter that Mayor-President Sharon Westo…
Even if the officers are charged, Louisiana law on self-defense and the natural deference to law enforcement officers in a crisis situation may not result in a conviction. Still, if Salamoni's initial approach proves as aggressive as described by officials — gun drawn followed by an expletive-laden threat to shoot if Sterling didn't comply with his order — Dabadie may be compelled to act even in the absence of a criminal charge.
Broome campaigned on a pledge to replace the chief, but because of civil service protections, he remains in charge. The Baton Rouge Police Department has a strong union presence and also a long history of stonewalling when officers are accused of misconduct.
The Sterling case has dragged on too long, as today's anniversary makes clear. But firing or otherwise disciplining the officers in the absence of a thorough criminal review is premature. The mayor should have kept her opinion in check until the proper time.