Louisiana won't charge police officers in Alton Sterling shooting death

Louisiana’s attorney general has ruled out criminal charges against two white Baton Rouge police officers in the fatal shooting of a black man whose death fuelled widespread protests.

Attorney General Jeff Landry’s announcement Tuesday comes nearly 11 months after the Justice Department ruled out federal civil rights charges in Alton Sterling’s July 2016 death.

Officer Blane Salamoni shot and killed Sterling during a struggle outside a Baton Rouge convenience store where the 37-year-old black man was selling homemade CDs. Officer Howie Lake II helped wrestle Sterling to the ground, but Lake didn’t fire his gun.

Landry made the announcement after meeting with family members of Sterling.

Veda Washington-Abusaleh, Sterling’s aunt, was in tears after meeting with Landry.

“They said they didn’t find anything,” she said. “They said it was justifiable, what happened to Alton was justifiable.”

The shooting came amid increased scrutiny of fatal encounters between police and black men. Two cellphone videos of the shooting quickly spread on social media, leading to protests during which nearly 200 people were arrested. The officers’ body cameras and a store surveillance camera also recorded the encounter, but those videos have not been released.

Deadly shooting of officers days later

Federal authorities opened a civil rights investigation immediately after the shooting and released their findings in May 2017. They said Salamoni yelled that Sterling was reaching for a gun in his pocket before shooting him three times, and then fired three more shots into Sterling’s back when he began to sit up and move. In this July 6, 2016 file photo, photos of Alton Sterling are taped to the wall at a makeshift memorial outside the Triple S convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

The officers recovered a loaded revolver from Sterling’s pocket. As a convicted felon, Sterling could not legally carry a gun. Sterling had pleaded guilty in 2011 to being a felon in possession of a firearm and illegally carrying a weapon and was arrested in May 2009 after an officer confronted him outside another store where he was selling CDs, court records show.

Federal authorities concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Salamoni or Lake willfully deprived Sterling of his civil rights, or that the officers’ use of force was objectively unreasonable.

The officers encountered Sterling after responding to a report of a man with a gun outside the Triple S Food Mart. The officers told Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car and struggled with him when he didn’t comply, the Justice Department said. Lake shocked Sterling with a stun gun before the officers wrestled him to the ground, according to federal investigators.

Attorneys for Sterling’s relatives have said federal authorities told them that Salamoni pointed a gun at Sterling’s head and threatened to kill him before the struggle began. In a summary of its findings, the Justice Department said Salamoni pointed his gun at Sterling’s head but didn’t mention any verbal threats by the officer.

Salamoni and Lake have remained on paid administrative leave since the July 5, 2016, shooting.

Ieshia Evans is detained by law enforcement as she protests the shooting death of Alton Sterling near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department on July 9, 2016. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

A Reuters photograph captured Iesha Evans in a standoff with police. Late last year, a judge ruled that dozens of protesters should receive between $ 500 and $ 1,000 each as payment for having their constitutional rights denied due to the use of excessive force. They also had their criminal charge relating to the protest expunged, where applicable.

The heated and tragic atmosphere in Baton Rouge continued after the shooting, with three officers gunned down in an ambush less than two weeks later. The gunman, Gavin Long, was shot dead by police and a suicide note released by authorities in 2017 and said to be written by Long expressed a desire to get rid of “bad cops” and included the names of several police officers, although it did not mention Sterling by name.

Family’s civil suit unresolved

Police prepared for another round of protests before the Justice Department announced its decision last year, but the response was far more subdued. After learning neither officer would be charged with federal crimes, dozens of people held a peaceful vigil outside the convenience store where Sterling was shot.

In June 2017, lawyers for Sterling’s five children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Baton Rouge, its police department and former police chief, and the two officers involved. Their suit alleges the shooting fit a pattern of racist behaviour and excessive force by the Baton Rouge police. It also claims poor training and inadequate police procedures led to Sterling’s death.

The suit has yet to be resolved but in several other cases in the U.S., cities have settled suits with the families of deceased victims in officer-involved deaths, often for millions of dollars.

In the state investigation, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore recused himself, citing his professional relationship with Salamoni’s parents, who have served as police officers in Baton Rouge. Moore’s recusal left Landry’s office to review evidence and decide whether any state charges were warranted.

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