By SADIE GURMAN and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department has decided not to charge two white Baton Rouge police officers in the death of a black man whose fatal shooting was captured on cellphone video, fueling protests in Louisiana’s capital and beyond, The Associated Press has learned.
Federal authorities opened a civil rights investigation immediately after the July 2016 police shooting that killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling outside a convenience store where he was selling homemade CDs.
A person familiar with the decision disclosed it to the AP on Tuesday. The person was not authorized to talk publicly about the decision and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The department’s decision doesn’t preclude state authorities from conducting their own investigation and pursuing their own criminal charges.
Two cellphone videos of Sterling’s deadly struggle with two white officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, quickly spread on social media after the July 5 shooting.
A police report says Sterling was initially jolted with a stun gun after he didn’t comply with the officers’ commands to put his hands on the hood of a car. The report also says the officers saw the butt of a gun in one of Sterling’s pants pockets and saw him try to reach for it before he was shot.
Justin Bamberg, an attorney for some of Sterling’s relatives, has said the family wanted an indictment.
Bamberg also represents relatives of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running from a traffic stop in Charleston, South Carolina, when a white police officer shot and killed him in 2015. The former officer, 35-year-old Michael Slager, pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges on Tuesday, five months after a jury deadlocked on state murder charges against him.
In Baton Rouge last summer, police arrested nearly 200 protesters following Sterling’s death, which occurred a day before another black man was killed by police in Minnesota.
Racial tensions in Baton Rouge were simmering when a black military veteran from Missouri ambushed and killed three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers and wounded three others before being shot dead on July 17. The city was still reeling from the shootings when August floodwaters damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes in the area.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards immediately asked for a federal investigation of Sterling’s death. He called cellphone video of the incident “disturbing, to say the least.”
The videos show Sterling scuffling with Salamoni and Lake after they responded to a caller’s complaint that Sterling had threatened the caller with a gun outside the Triple S Food Mart.
The two officers had Sterling pinned on his back when gunfire erupted, moments after someone yelled, “He’s got a gun!”
Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. has said Sterling was armed but didn’t specify the type of weapon. The store’s owner, Abdullah Muflahi, has said Sterling wasn’t holding a gun during the shooting but he saw officers remove one from his pocket afterward.
As a convicted felon, Sterling couldn’t legally carry a gun. Court records show 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.
In the shooting’s aftermath, Dabadie called the encounter a “horrible tragedy.”
Police have said they have dashcam and bodycam video and store surveillance footage of the shooting, though none of it has been released. A federal judge sealed a coroner’s report on Sterling’s autopsy.
Both officers were placed on administrative leave, a standard procedure. Salamoni has been a Baton Rouge police officer for four years; Lake had been on the force for three years. Each had two prior “use of force” complaints against them, and they were cleared in all four of those cases, internal affairs records indicate.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore recused himself from any state criminal investigation into Sterling’s death, citing his professional relationship with Salamoni’s parents. Salamoni’s father, Noel Salamoni, is a Baton Rouge police captain. His mother, Melissa Salamoni, retired as a Baton Rouge police captain last June after 32 years on the force.
Moore’s recusal left Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to decide whether to have his own office review evidence for possible state charges or to appoint another district attorney to take over the case.
Landry has said he wouldn’t have access to the federal investigation on Sterling’s shooting until it was completed.
Landry said in a July 11 statement that his office trusts the federal government to investigate the case and looks forward to “fulfilling our responsibilities” after getting the results of the federal investigation.
Bamberg, the attorney for some of Sterling’s relatives, urged Landry in July to “fight for justice” in the case and expressed hope that the attorney general’s office “one day” will get involved.
The mass arrests of people protesting Sterling’s death led to federal lawsuits accusing police of using excessive force and violating protesters’ civil rights. Gov. Edwards, who comes from a family of sheriffs, has said he was pleased with the police response to the protests and defended their deployment of riot gear and weaponry.
Gurman reported from Washington.
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