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 5, 2016, police shooting that killed Alton Sterling, 37, 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 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.
Outside the convenience store, dozens of people gathered Tuesday upon hearing the news and held a vigil. One of Alton’s aunts spoke at the vigil and led the crowd in chants of “No justice, no peace!”
“It’s been almost a year and we’re still suffering like it happened yesterday,” said one of Sterling’s aunts, Veda Sterling. “We need closure. We need a conviction. We need justice.”
Arthur Reed, a local activist, said he broke the news to another of Sterling’s aunts, Sandra, in a phone call after seeing the news reports. Reed says she broke down crying and is “heartbroken,” not only because of the decision but because the Justice Department didn’t notify the family first.
“We just think it wasn’t done properly,” he said.
No public announcement has been made by the Department of Justice, and many officials in Baton Rouge said they haven’t been notified.
“The Governor’s Office has not been notified of a timeline or decision regarding the Alton Sterling investigation. We have been in constant contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and were assured that both our office and the Sterling family would be given advance notice,” said Richard Carbo, a spokesman for Gov. John Bel Edwards.
John McLindon, Salamoni’s attorney, said he can’t comment until he reads an official report from the Justice Department. An attorney for Lake did not return a call seeking comment.
Ryan Julison, a spokesman for two attorneys representing some members of Alton Sterling’s family, said the family hasn’t been notified of any DOJ decision.
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 Tuesday, five months after a jury deadlocked on state murder charges against him.
Tuesday’s decision in the Sterling case was the highest profile decision not to bring charges against police officers in a deadly shooting since Jeff Sessions became attorney general. But the federal investigation into possible civil rights violations by the officers was seen as problematic. Authorities in such cases must meet a difficult standard of proof, a challenge that has complicated prosecutions in past police shootings.
Sessions has said his Justice Department is committed to holding individual officers accountable when they break the law. But he also believes too much federal scrutiny of police departments can diminish officers’ effectiveness and hurt morale, and has ordered a sweeping review of federal consent decrees that force cities to agree to major policing overhauls.
Louisiana’s governor immediately requested a federal investigation of Sterling’s death last summer and called cellphone video of the incident “disturbing.”
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 convenience store.
The two officers had Sterling pinned on his back when gunfire erupted, moments after someone yelled, “He’s got a gun!”
The Baton Rouge police chief has said Sterling was armed. The store’s owner 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.
Police said they have dashcam and bodycam video and store surveillance footage of the shooting; none has been released. A coroner’s report on Sterling’s autopsy has been sealed.
Both officers were placed on administrative leave, a standard procedure. Each officer had two prior “use of force” complaints against them, and records indicate they were cleared in all cases.
The East Baton Rouge District Attorney recused himself from any state criminal investigation into Sterling’s death, citing his professional relationship with Salamoni’s parents. They are current and former police officers in Baton Rouge.
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 the case.
A spokesman for Landry said Tuesday their office would not comment until after an official Justice Department announcement.
Sterling’s death sparked widespread protests last summer during which police arrested nearly 200 protesters. The mass arrests led to federal lawsuits accusing police of using excessive force and violating protesters’ civil rights.
Gurman reported from Washington. Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.