No charges will be filed against two Baton Rouge police officers in the 2016 shooting death of Alton Sterling, after an investigation determined that the shooting was justified, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said Tuesday.
“We have concluded that the officers in question acted as reasonable officers under existing law and were justified in their use of force,” Landry’s written report on the investigation reads.
But his decision is not the last chapter of the case, as the police department plans to hold hearings on whether to discipline the officers, and says it intends to release four videos that have yet to be made public.
Landry’s announcement in Baton Rouge — coming 10 months after federal prosecutors determined they wouldn’t file civil rights charges against the officers — was made moments after he told Sterling’s relatives of the decision.
Members of Sterling’s family were visibly upset. Sterling’s aunt Veda Washington wiped tears as she left his office.
“They’re not going to bring charges on anybody. Why would they do that? This is white America,” Washington said.
Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot and killed by one of two white police officers who confronted him outside a convenience store in July 2016. Cell phone video showed Sterling pinned to the ground by the officers before he was shot; police said Sterling was shot because he was reaching for a gun.
Outrage over Sterling’s death led to renewed Black Lives Matter protests across the nation.
Landry said his conclusion drew on the federal investigation — including two use-of-force experts who told the Justice Department that the shooting was reasonable — as well as his department’s own interviews of eyewitnesses.
The officers, he said, tried to make a lawful arrest, tried Tasering and other nonlethal techniques to subdue Sterling when he didn’t comply with commands, and made “well-founded and reasonable” attempts to control Sterling’s hands until the moment one officer claims he saw Sterling try to reach a gun.
Attorneys for Sterling’s family slammed what they called a biased decision — and urged the public to hold Landry accountable by voting him out of office.
“It takes courage … to fight for justice; we didn’t see that in this situation,” family attorney Chris Stewart said.
“But that’s fine, because … we know what the repercussion is: Getting you out of office.”
More videos, and a decision on the officers’ future, are coming
Repercussions still could come for Officers Blane Salamoni, who shot Sterling, and Officer Howie Lake II. Sterling’s five children filed a wrongful death lawsuit last summer.
And the Baton Rouge Police Department will hold disciplinary hearings by Friday to determine whether the officers’ behavior was in line with department policy, Chief Murphy Paul said.
After the hearings, Paul said, police will release four additional videos: two body camera recordings; one from a store surveillance camera; and one from the dashboard camera in a patrol car.
The woman who raised Sterling, Sandra Sterling, predicted that the videos will spark more public outrage.
“When you see those other … videos of Blane Salamoni killing Alton Sterling, you’ll cry again,” Sandra Sterling said. “And when you cry again, you’ll be telling the Sterling family, ‘I’m sorry.'”
Sterling was shot on the ground
Sterling was known as the “CD man,” who sold CDs and DVDs outside the convenience store where he was shot, according to local media.
The killing gripped the nation in part because two publicly released bystander videos, each less than a minute long, captured Sterling’s part of the struggle with the two officers.
The officers were responding to a call about a man with a gun. The call was from a homeless man who said that after he approached Sterling for money, Sterling showed him the weapon.
According to the state report released Tuesday, Sterling refused to heed the officers’ commands to put his hands on the hood of a car, and each officer reached for and tried to control Sterling’s arms.
When Sterling spun around and pulled his right arm away from Salamoni, Salamoni drew his gun and said, “Don’t f****** move, or I’ll shoot you in your f****** head,” the report says.
The Justice Department last spring said that Salamoni at this point put a gun to Sterling’s head.
Sterling then complied, but eventually resisted Lake’s attempts to gain control of his hands, Landry’s report reads.
Lake twice used a Taser on Sterling, with little to no effect. Salamoni eventually holstered his gun, tackled Sterling to the ground and tried to control Sterling’s right arm, and Lake knelt and tried to control Sterling’s left arm, the state report says.
“If you move, I swear to God,” Salamoni tells Sterling, according to the report.
At one point, the cell phone videos show, someone shouts, “He’s got a gun!” In one video, an officer draws something from his waistband and points it at Sterling.
Landry wrote at this moment Sterling was positioned in way that concealed his right front pocket. The officers continue to try to control his hands.
“He’s going for the gun,” Salamoni yells, according to the state report.
The state report says Salamoni first shot Sterling three times in the chest, and then rolled off him.
Sterling sits up. As Lake yelled at Sterling to get on the ground, Sterling rolled away from Salamoni, who fired three more shots, this time into Sterling’s back. Sterling’s hands and right side are concealed from Salamoni’s view, Landry said.
Lake removed a loaded .38-caliber handgun from Sterling’s right front pocket, the report says.
An autopsy report done by the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s office said none of the six bullets exited Sterling’s body. A pathologist also found a Taser probe embedded in the back of his shorts, says the report, which was released Tuesday.
Attorney general: Drugs may have contributed
In May 2017, federal prosecutors found there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant civil rights charges against Salamoni and Lake.
The feds cited use-of-force experts who determined the officers’ actions were reasonable under the circumstances — including that the two used several less-than-lethal techniques before using force, and that Sterling struggled with the officers and failed to follow orders.
The Justice Department also said that evidence couldn’t prove or disprove Salamoni’s assertion that Sterling was reaching for a gun.
Landry said that Sterling had illicit drugs in his system.
“Considering this, it is reasonable that Mr. Sterling was under the influence, and that contributed to his noncompliance,” Landry said.
The autopsy indicated Sterling had cocaine, methamphetamine, hydrocodone, a marijuana ingredient, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in his blood.
Stewart, the Sterling family attorney, said that every action was “initiated by the officers.”
He also said Salamoni’s threat to shoot Sterling in the head was illegal.
“That is not the behavior that any officer should have,” Stewart said. “In our opinion, that is criminal.”