The two Baton Rouge police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling last year will not face federal charges as a result of the incident, says U.S Attorney Corey Admundson. The decision was announced at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. The announcement confirmed rumors that were reported by multiple sources on Tuesday, which prompted public response even before the official decision had been issued. Area residents held a vigil for Sterling outside of the Triple S Food Mart storefront where he died, and Baton Rouge police reported making three arrests around midnight for charges that included highway obstruction and possession of an illegal weapon.
Sterling’s shooting on July 5, 2016 was captured on a mobile phone video. Sterling, a 37-year-old African American, can be seen struggling with two officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, both Caucasian, before Sterling is shot at close range several times. The video was circulated widely through social media, leading some to view the shooting as proof of inherent racism in the local police force. Protests and civil unrest gripped the city for several days, and police made over 200 arrests in the massive demonstrations that followed. Many locals fear that the DOJ’s decision regarding the Sterling case could lead to more protests.
State prosecutors may still bring charges, however, with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry conducting his own investigation into Sterling’s shooting. At the time of the incident, Governor John Bel Edwards called the video “disturbing” and demanded an immediate investigation into the matter. Local CBS affiliate WAFB reported that East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III recused himself from investigation due to a long-time friendship with the parents of Officer Salamoni. The recusal led to the Justice Department taking over the investigation of the Sterling case, but Landry stated at that time that his office would be ready to act as soon as the federal investigation was completed.
According to an NBC News report, Admundson explained the Justice Department’s decision, claiming that there was simply not sufficient evidence to proceed with the prosecution of the two officers, who have remained on paid administrative leave since Sterling’s death. In the video, one of the officers can be heard yelling what sounds like “He’s got a gun!” just seconds before gunshots are heard. In a search warrant affidavit, which gets filled out after the fact in cases of alleged probable cause, detectives reported that the officers observed the butt of a gun sticking out of Sterling’s pocket.
Central to the investigation was whether Sterling was reaching for the weapon he was suspected to be in possession of at the time of the shooting. Many say that the video that circulated showing the incident does not show evidence of Sterling having a weapon, but others claim that the angle of the video makes it difficult to see what is happening on the ground during the struggle and that it is possible that Sterling did, in fact, have a gun. However, there is additional footage, including dashcam, bodycam, and store surveillance recordings, that have not yet been released which could shed more light on the circumstances surrounding Sterling’s death.
Area residents, many of whom are family members of Sterling or knew him personally, are understandably devastated by the Justice Department’s decision. “We’re still suffering like it happened yesterday,” Veda Washington-Abusaleh, Alton Sterling’s aunt, says of her nephew’s death. “We need closure. We need a conviction. We need justice.”
Several civic and religious leaders have spoken out about the Justice Department’s decision regarding Sterling’s shooting, urging local residents to remain peaceful in their expressions of discontent and to work toward healing the wounded community. The Office of the Diocese of Baton Rouge released a statement from Bishop Robert W. Muench appealing to people of all faiths to “seize this opportunity to bring about healing and change.”
“We must dedicate ourselves to work for racial healing and transformation in Baton Rouge,” the statement said. “While recognizing the universal respect we should have for those whose duty it is to ensure our public safety, we must work together for law enforcement and criminal justice reform, economic development in all parts of the city, access to healthcare for all, quality education, and employment opportunities.”
As residents wait to see whether or not Landry’s office will press charges in the Sterling shooting, local activists are already busy pressuring the Lousiana Attorney General to bring justice and closure to Sterling’s family. At the vigil held Tuesday evening, 18-year-old Mya Richardson gave out Landry’s contact information over a loudspeaker, including his Twitter handle and office telephone number, and encouraged people to make sure that he knew how angry they are about the shooting investigation and the Justice Department’s decision.
“We are not going to take this sitting down,” said 16-year-old Raheeja Flowers, another young resident at the vigil. “Alton did not die here for us to suck it up and move on!”
Tamara Williams, who grew up in the area and knew Sterling personally, feels much the same way. “They need to lose their jobs,” says Williams. “If that doesn’t happen, it’s going to get bad. Baton Rouge is on a stage right now, and people are going to see how we react.”
[Featured Image by Joshua Lott/Getty Images]