The two Baton Rouge, La., policemen who were involved in the shooting death of Alton Sterling will not face federal charges in the case, according to a report citing “four sources” from the Washington Post. The incident, caught on video, was one of several in which African-Americans died at the hands of law enforcement, spurring massive protests and in two incidents, violence against police.
The Department of Justice has not made an official statement and Sterling’s family has not been notified of the agency’s reported plan to decline filing violation of civil rights charges against officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake. The Post reported that the DOJ has concluded its investigation into the case. Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said she has not been informed of the decision by the DOJ, nor has Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate.
Sterling, 37, was confronted by Salamoni and Lake last July 5 in front of a convenience store in Baton Rouge while he was selling CDs there. The officers had received an anonymous tip that Sterling had threatened the caller with a gun. The officers wrestled Sterling to the ground, but in a video of the incident one officer can be heard yelling “he’s got a gun!” Soon after shots rang out, fatally wounding Sterling. Officers said in later affidavits that they saw a gun butt in his pocket, but it is not clear from the video that he was reaching for any weapon.
The shooting came one day before the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile, who was killed in a traffic stop by a suburban Minneapolis officer. That officer, Jeronimo Yanez, 28, has been charged with manslaughter and has pleaded not guilty. But that shooting along with Sterling’s spawned massive nationwide demonstrations over the large number of Blacks who die at the hands of police. At a protest in Dallas two days after Sterling was killed, a sniper identified as Micah Xavier Johnson, ambushed and killed five officers in an act of revenge. He was cornered and killed by a police robotic vehicle.
On July 17, Gavin Eugene Long, said to be enraged by Sterling’s death went on a rampage, killing three officers. In a video detailing his anger, he defended Johnson calling what he did “justice.” He died in a gun battle with police.
The decision by the DOJ is the first development in a high-profile case involving a police shooting of an African-American announced by the department under its new head, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As the news spread of the decision, the department immediately fell under criticism by those who believed the announcement was imminent. The harshest criticism was reserved for how the information got out in the first place.
“The Department of Justice’s failure to communicate with the community has created angst and nervousness, and I fear carries the potential for increased tension between the community and law enforcement,” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, whose congressional district includes a portion of Baton Rouge, wrote to Sessions on Friday, according to the Post. “It is inappropriate and against the interests of public safety . . . to allow this level of uncertainty to continue.”
Activists who had been following the case voiced their frustration with the DOJ’s decision.
“There is no other way to read this decision from the Department of Justice, which issued no charges to the police officers who tased Alton Sterling, held him down on the ground, and shot him in the chest and back,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. “A Black man who was selling CD’s was summarily executed, and the Attorney General sees nothing wrong with that.”