Justice Department won't charge officers in fatal shooting of black man in Louisiana
Updated: The U.S. Justice Department won’t charge two white police officers in the fatal shooting of a black man last July in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Acting U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson said Wednesday that there is insufficient evidence to bring charges in the death of Alton Sterling, who was shot while pinned to the ground, report the Advocate and the Monroe News Star. The Washington Post and the New York Times had advance reports on the decision. A press release is here.
According to the Times, the decision comes as the Trump administration is “under scrutiny about how it will handle prosecutions in racially charged police shootings, a priority of the Obama administration.” Former President Barack Obama had announced the civil rights investigation last July.
Police had confronted Sterling while investigating a report of a man with a gun. Sterling was selling CDs outside a convenience store at the time.
A video of the shooting showed a police officer or officers apparently shooting Sterling, who was pinned to the ground, after someone shouted, “He’s got a gun. Gun!” A detective’s affidavit said officers had seen a butt of a gun in the pocket of Sterling’s pants.
It can be difficult to prove a federal civil rights violation. According to the press release, prosecutors must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the use of force was objectively unreasonable and that officers acted willfully to do something that the law forbids. “Although Sterling’s death is tragic,” the press release says, “the evidence does not meet these substantial evidentiary requirements.”
There were no federal charges against the police officer accused of killing Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. A Justice Department report said no evidence disproved the officer’s claim that he shot Brown because he feared for his safety when Brown charged him.
The press release outlines the findings in Sterling’s case. Sterling did not comply with initial commands to place his hands on the hood of a car, and struggled with officers when they put their hands on Sterling, the release says. When Officer Blane Salamoni pulled a gun, Sterling placed his hands on the car hood, but then tried to move them, spurring the other officer to use a stun gun.
Sterling fell, tried to get back up, and was tackled by Salamoni, who had holstered his weapon. On the ground, Salamoni tried to gain control of Sterling’s right hand while the other officer knelt on Sterling’s left arm. Salamoni yelled that Sterling was going for his pocket and had a gun, prompting the other officer to draw his gun and yell at Sterling not to move. Salamoni again yelled that Sterling was going for his gun, at a point when Sterling’s hand could not be seen on the video. Salamoni fired three times, striking Sterling in the chest. Sterling began to sit up and to continue moving. Salamoni fired three more times, striking Sterling in the back. The officers found a loaded gun in Sterling’s pocket.
“Although the videos do not show Sterling’s right hand at the time those shots were fired, they show that Sterling’s right hand was not under Officer Salamoni’s control,” the press release says. “The evidence also cannot establish that Sterling was not reaching for a gun when Officer Salamoni yelled that Sterling was doing so.”
“Given the totality of the circumstances—that the officers had been fighting with Sterling and had attempted less-than-lethal methods of control; that they knew Sterling had a weapon; that Sterling had reportedly brandished a gun at another person; and that Sterling was much larger and stronger than either officer—the Department cannot prove either that the shots were unconstitutional or that they were willful,” the press release said.