BATON ROUGE, La. â€” A deadly confrontation with two white Louisiana police officers that left a black man dead lasted just 90 seconds, and it took 10 months for prosecutors to conclude the officers didn’t commit a federal crime â€” but the aftershock from the killing that shook Baton Rouge continues to reverberate.
Relatives of the slain 37-year-old Alton Sterling are urging state authorities to bring charges.
“The actions of the officers that night were absolutely heinous,” Chris Stewart, a lawyer for two of Sterling’s five children, said Wednesday.
Acting U.S Attorney Corey Amundson, however, said that while the videos of Alton Sterling’s fatal shooting are “disturbing,” nothing on the tapes amounted to a federal crime.
“Life or death decisions were being made in split seconds,” Amundson said at a news conference.
Sterling was selling homemade CDs outside a convenience store on July 5, 2016, when Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II were sent to investigate a report of a man there threatening someone with a gun.
Two cellphone videos of Alton Sterling’s deadly struggle with the two officers rapidly spread on social media last summer, stirring up widespread outrage and setting off daily protests in Louisiana’s capital city.
Federal investigators reviewed other video evidence that hasn’t been released, including images and audio captured by the officers’ body cameras.
Stewart said they learned during a meeting Wednesday with Justice Department officials that Salamoni pointed a gun at Sterling’s head and said, “I’m going to shoot you, bitch,” before he and the other officer wrestled Sterling to the ground.
Salamoni fired all six of the shots that hit Sterling. Federal authorities concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Salamoni or Lake acted unreasonably and wilfully during the encounter.
Amundson said a police dispatcher told Salamoni and Lake to respond just after midnight to a report that a black man selling CDs had “pulled a pistol on somebody” outside the Triple S Food Mart and had a gun in his pocket.
The officers told Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car and struggled with him when he didn’t comply, Amundson said. He added that Sterling appeared confused when Salamoni drew his gun and pointed it at his head.
Amundson didn’t say anything about a verbal threat by Salamoni during his news conference and didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Amundson said Lake shocked Sterling with a stun gun when he started to remove his hands from the hood. Sterling fell to his knees, but then began to get back up and didn’t comply with the officers’ commands to get down on the ground, Amundson added.
As Sterling faced the officers with his hands free, Salamoni holstered his weapon and tackled him.
“They both went to the ground, with Officer Salamoni on top of Mr. Sterling, who is on his back with his right hand partially under the hood of the car. Officer Lake joined them on the ground, kneeling on Mr. Sterling’s left arm while Officer Salamoni attempted to gain control over Mr. Sterling’s right arm,” Amundson said.
Within a few seconds, Salamoni yelled, “Going for his pocket! He’s got a gun! Gun!” or words to that effect, according to Amundson.
Lake drew his weapon and yelled at Sterling not to move, Amundson said. Less than one second later, he added, Salamoni again yelled that Sterling was “going for a gun” and then fired three shots into Sterling’s chest.
Within a few seconds of the first three shots, Sterling began to sit up and roll over to his left toward the officers.
“At this point, the officers could not see Mr. Sterling and what he was doing with his hands and whether he was going for a gun,” Amundson said.
Lake again yelled at Sterling to get on the ground, and Salamoni fired three more shots into Sterling’s back when he kept moving, according to Amundson.
Amundson said federal investigators couldn’t establish from the videos where Sterling’s right hand was when Salamoni yelled out that he was going for a gun.
Lake immediately retrieved a loaded .38-calibre revolver from Sterling’s right pocket. Both officers later told investigators they saw Sterling reaching for a gun.
Amundson said the Justice Department consulted two independent experts in use of force by police.
“Both experts criticized aspects of the officers’ techniques and approach in this case,” he said. “Having said that, the experts also concluded unanimously that the officers’ actions were not unreasonable.”
The Justice Department’s decision may not be the final legal chapter, however, because state authorities will conduct their own investigation. The family called on state Attorney General Jeff Landry to bring charges.
“Jeff Landry, please open up your heart, your eyes and give us the justice that we deserve,” said Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s oldest son.
Salamoni’s lawyer, John McLindon, said the officer was relieved he won’t face federal charges. McLindon also expressed confidence that Landry’s office will conduct a “thorough” review of the case.
“But I think the end result will be the same: There was no criminal conduct,” he said.
Police arrested nearly 200 protesters in Baton Rouge in July 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 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.
Both officers remain on administrative leave, a standard procedure.
R.J. Rico, Michael Kunzelman And Melinda Deslatte, The Associated Press