With questions and anger bubbling up nationwide, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights division took over the investigation Wednesday of a fatal shooting — captured on at least two graphic videos — of a black man by two Baton Rouge, La., police officers.
The move came only hours after leaders of the city’s black community joined family members of the victim, Alton Sterling, 37, at a news conference to call for more protests and for the inquiry to be turned over to state and federal authorities.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who announced the federal involvement at a news conference, said he had “serious concerns” about the shooting based information from police and the video of the shooting that took place outside of a convenience store. “The video is disturbing, to say the least,” Edwards said.
Edwards told reporters that the inquiry, originally in the hands of local police, would be handled “impartially, professionally and thoroughly.” He said the agency’s civil rights division would be in charge of the probe, assisted by the FBI and Louisiana State Police.
A second video surfaced late Wednesday that appears to show the incident in the parking lot of a convenience store, The Daily Beast reported. The media outlet said the store owner, Abdul Muflahi, provided the new video and reported it does not appear to support the claim that Sterling’s supposed gun represented an active threat to the officers. Seconds after the shooting, one of the officers is seen removing an object from Sterling’s right pants pocket.
Edwards called on the Baton Rouge community and faith-based leaders “to work with all of us that we remain calm and peaceful as the details unfold.” He also said he had spoken with Sterling’s aunt, Sandra Sterling, to express his condolences.
Sandra Sterling had joined community leaders in front of city hall earlier Wednesday to call her nephew’s shooting a “horrible thing.” “He didn’t deserve that,” she said.
The developments prompted one national civil rights organization to reiterate its call for better safeguards against alleged police wrongdoing. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund on Wednesday underscored a previous call for, among other thingws, annual collection and public reporting of arrests, use of force and traffic stop data, training on implicit bias, adolescent development and appropriate interactions with people suffering from mental illness and other disabilities.
“Mr. Sterling’s death is horrific to witness and follows an increasingly long line of unjustified police shootings of civilians,” said Sherillyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the LDF. “We send our sincere condolences to his family, and join the call for a transparent investigation of the shooting, including the release of any surveillance, dash-cam, or police body-worn camera video.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Baton Rouge police chief Carl Dabadie called the fatal shooting a “horrible tragedy.” He identified the officers involved as Blane Salamoni, a four-year member of the department and Howie Lake II, who has been on the force for three years.
He did not identify their race, but said they have have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
Lake was placed on administrative leave once before, in 2014, along with five other officers, as a result of a police-involved shooting, WAFB-TV reported. The incident involved a suspect who crashed his car while trying to elude officers. The suspect then began shooting at officers, who returned fire, hitting him multiple times but not killing him.
Dabadie also called on any groups planning to gather to express their concerns over the incident to “do it peacefully, that no one gets hurt or injured.”
The Justice Department’s investigation will look into whether the officers willfully violated Sterling’s civil rights through the use of unreasonable or excessive force, the Associated Press reported. Similar investigations, which often take many months to resolve, were opened following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York.
Federal investigators must meet a high legal burden to bring a civil rights prosecution, establishing that an officer knowingly used unreasonable force under the circumstances and did not simply make a mistake or use poor judgment, AP reported. Many federal probes conclude without criminal charges.
Source: USA Today | Doug Stanglin