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DOJ: 'insufficient evidence' to charge officers in Sterling shooting

7 years 2 months 2 weeks ago Wednesday, May 03 2017 May 3, 2017 May 03, 2017 10:05 AM May 03, 2017 in News
Source: WBRZ
By: Alicia Serrano

BATON ROUGE – The Department of Justice has officially announced that the two Baton Rouge Police Department officers who were involved in the shooting death of Alton Sterling will not be charged, citing "insufficient evidence."

Acting United States Attorney Corey Amundson for the Middle District of Louisiana said that he along with all of the agents and prosecutors involved in the federal investigation agreed that there was insufficient evidence to charge BRPD officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II with a federal civil rights violation. 

Amundson said that in order to federally charge the officers, the Department of Justice "would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers acted willfully with the specific intent to do something that the law forbid."

Amundson stated that the officers responded to a call at the Triple S convenience store in north Baton Rouge at 12:30 a.m. on July 5, 2016. The 911 caller reported that he was threatened by a black man wearing a red shirt who was outside of the store selling CD's. The caller reported the man pulled a gun out and that he had a gun in his pocket. Amundson stated that the entire exchange between Sterling and the officers lasted about 90 seconds.

Amundson said the Department of Justice examined videos from the officers' body cameras, police vehicle, the store's surveillance and cell phones.

The videos show the officers commanding Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car and when Sterling did not comply, a struggle ensued. Amundson stated that Officer Salamoni then pointed his gun at Sterling's head and then Sterling put his hands on the hood. When Sterling tried to move his hands, Officer Lake used his Taser on Sterling, causing him to fall to his knees and then get back up. The officers told him to get back down and then Lake tried unsuccessfully to use his Taser again.

According to Amundson, Salamoni tackled Sterling to the ground. Lake went to the ground as well, kneeling on Sterling's left arm while Salamoni attempted to control his right arm. Salamoni then yelled that Sterling was going for his gun and Lake drew his gun. Salamoni yelled that Sterling was going for his gun a second time and fired three shots into Sterling's chest. Sterling then began to sit up and rolled over when Salamoni fired three more shots in his back.

Amundson said that in order to federally charge the officers, "we must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers’ use of force was objectively unreasonable based on the circumstances at the time and based on their perceptions at the time."

"Under this standard it is not enough to show an officer acted recklessly or with negligence or acted with a specific intent or by mistake, exercise bad judgment, use poor tactics or even that the officer escalated the situation where he could have de-escalated. Those things are not violations under federal criminal civil rights laws," Amundson said. 

Amundson went on to say that there are "no winners" in the case.

The full text from the DOJ decision can be read here. 

Sterling family reaction

Sterling's family met with representatives of the Department of Justice inside the Federal Courthouse prior to the announcement on Wednesday afternoon. The family and family's attorneys held a separate press conference just outside the courthouse after the decision was announced. 

Sandra Sterling, Alton Sterling's aunt, told WBRZ that the meeting and decision went "horrible."

 "I’m still emotionally messed up because the things that I heard in this meeting today was horrible. It was horrible what he did," she said.

She stated that what was reported in the news about the shooting before the decision by the Department of Justice was announced was nothing in comparison to what the family heard in the meeting.

"It's so much worse," she said. "When they said 'It's going to get better,' no, it got worse," she said.

She stated that the "suffering still continues."

Quinyetta McMillon, mother of Alton Sterling's oldest son, pleaded with the community to continue to demand for justice. 

"It can't stop right here," McMillion said. "We deserve it if nobody else, we deserve it." 

Cameron Sterling, Alton Sterling's 16-year-old son, briefly addressed reporters and stated that his faith is what he relies on moving forward.

"No matter if we get justice or not, we depend on God because God is an unjust God and he will always be there for us no matter what," Cameron Sterling said. 

"No matter what goes on behind those closed doors in that court, it doesn’t matter because we still have to depend on God," he said.

Cameron Sterling went on to say that he is his father's legacy and he will always support his family.

Governor, Mayor ask for peaceful reactions

East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and Governor John Bel Edwards held a press conference an hour after the announcement. Broome began by stating that despite the Department of Justice's decision, that "does not mean that the police officers acted appropriately."

Broome said that she understood citizens who are angry about the decision and stated that they have the right to protest if they feel the need to do so, however to remain peaceful. Broome also stated that moving forward she will be "strong and firm" in making sure Baton Rouge citizens are safe.

Governor John Bel Edwards reiterated the call for citizens to remain peaceful and prayerful as the community continues to heal and for the sake of Alton Sterling's family. Edwards also called for citizens to be "peacemakers."

When asked about the decision being leaked to the Washington Post on Tuesday, both Broome and Edwards expressed their disapproval. 

"I don’t know anyone who was satisfied with the way the decision leaked,” Broome said.

Edwards went on to say that he believed the family was completely disrespected as the Department of Justice told them they would be notified first.

“It was very disrespectful to tell the family that they would know first and then it came from the media,” Edwards said. "I do hope there will be some investigation on how the leak occurred," Edwards said.

The decision was first reported Tuesday afternoon by a Washington Post report, citing "four people familiar with the case." Later, major television networks were able to independently confirm the decision.

Both Broome and Edwards said the conversation of the relationship between law enforcement and the community will continue and they have full confidence in the state investigation that will be conducted. 

What happens next?

Attorney General Jeff Landry announced that he has directed the Department of Justice to forward their investigative materials to the Louisiana State Police to conduct a state investigation. Additionally, Landry said that he has assigned a special prosecutor from the Louisiana Department of Justice to assist in the state investigation.

"Had the USDOJ not been tasked to lead this investigation, there is no doubt LSP would have led the investigation," Landry's statement noted.  

According to the Baton Rouge Police Department, both Officer Salamoni and Officer Lake will remain on administrative leave. Both Salamoni and Lake have been on administrative leave since the shooting occurred. 

BRPD officer Howie Lake's attorney, Fred Crifasi, released a statement of his behalf stating that Lake will not comment on the case as the state investigation begins.  

"While Officer Lake is certainly relieved by the conclusion reached by the United States Department of Justice, he is aware that this investigation is now in the hands of the Attorney General for the State of Louisiana. Accordingly, he will continue to refrain from publicly commenting on the facts of the case," the statement read. 

Community leaders/officials react

Congressman Cedric Richmond stated that he was disappointed by the Department of Justice's decision, but praised Attorney General Jeff Landry for the decision to pursue a state investigation. Richmond's full statement is below:

"Today's announcement, and the process that led to it, leaves me extremely disappointed. However, I am convinced the fight for justice for Alton Sterling continues. I grieve for Sandra and the entire Sterling family as they have been forced to relive the horror they experienced more than 10 months ago.
"I commend Attorney General Landry's swift decision to pursue an investigation, led by State Police. While the standards for federal charges are extremely high, standards under state law are broader and may be more easily applied to the facts of this case. The Sterling family deserves a thorough, transparent investigation by state officials.
"I share the concerns of the Sterling family regarding the way they learned of DOJ's decision. There is no reason they should have read about the decision in the media with no direct contact from Justice officials for days. We deserve better from the department and I look forward to engaging Justice officials, through the relevant oversight committees in Congress, to get to the bottom of this failure of leadership."

Congressman Garret Graves stated that the shootings in 2016, although tragic, can be experiences to learn from. Graves’ full statement is below:

"We cannot allow the tragic shootings of 2016 or the fallout to define us or our community, but we can learn from those experiences.
All loss of life is tragic.  We've already lost Deputy Brad Garafola, Officer Matthew Gerald, Officer Montrell Jackson and Alton Sterling.  Deputy Nick Tullier is an amazing warrior overcoming all obstacles, but his life is forever changed and Deputy Bruce Simmons continues to recover from being shot.  Nothing good has resulted from these shootings.  Right or wrong, each loss represents a loved one, a friend, a confident, a husband, a community member – a life or part of life suddenly, prematurely, and in many cases, senselessly taken.   
The abundant evidence in this case –video footage, eyewitness accounts and other sources – faced the extensive scrutiny of both President Obama's Department of Justice and the current Administration's. Due to the prolific evidence, this decision should have been issued sooner; however, we trust that this decision is the product of a meticulous and fair investigation.
The Capital Region has endured tremendous hardship – this tragedy, an ambush attack on law enforcement, historical flooding and the recent fatal shooting of a Baton Rouge Deputy.  We now have two choices:  1) We can come together as a community, be neighbors and lift one another up as we did in the August flood, or 2) We can, once again, go down the path of violence, death and loss.  Only one makes sense.
I was born and raised in the Baton Rouge area.  What I experienced on July 17 when our officers were shot was unrecognizable.  It was like we were in a foreign country – not home.  An outsider spread his evil and hatred here.  Someone from out of state hijacked our community.  While Baton Rouge has its share of imperfections, we are better than that. 
From here, let's work with our new mayor to convert the city we have into the city we want. I urge our community to continue to pray for the victims and their families and to pray for peace and understanding."

Bishop Robert W. Muench, of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, stated that he believes there is a racial divide in the community and asks for citizens to bring about change and healing. Muench's full statement is below:

"The United States Department of Justice has handed down its decision. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision, one thing remains the same: there is a racial divide in our city that exposes a gap of access and opportunity.
We must dedicate ourselves to work for racial healing and transformation in Baton Rouge. While recognizing the universal respect we should have for those whose duty 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 health care for all, quality education, and employment opportunities.

The flood of 2016 demonstrated the strengths of our beloved city in times of crisis. We saw a self-sacrificing and compassionate embrace of those in need, regardless of color or ethnicity. Now that strength needs to be put into action to heal the wounds in our city.

I call upon Catholics of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, members of all faith communities, and people of good will to seize this opportunity to bring about healing and change. This moment calls for conversion of mind, heart, and spirit that is both personal and systemic.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge has established a Racial Harmony Commission that is working on ways that we as a diocese can respond to this challenge and build bridges of dialogue, understanding, respect, and action.
May God bless our city at this critical time! May God move our hearts and our wills to work for the establishment of His Kingdom of peace and justice on earth."

The Urban League of Louisiana released this statement on the Alton Sterling decision:

The world is watching. Our community is on high alert. Tensions are high. Hearts are broken.  And "justice" continues to evade us.
For ten months, the family of Alton Sterling has patiently waited to learn about the fate of Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, the Baton Rouge Police Department (BRPD) officers involved in their loved one's murder. Yesterday, the family and the rest of the world learned through an article published by the Washington Post that the officers would face no federal civil rights charges. The Sterling family deserved to be notified directly by the Department of Justice long before this decision became front-page news in a national media outlet. 
Many have become desensitized to police shootings, and do not feign shock when officers are not held accountable.  Instead, it's chalked up to flaws in the system. However, we must confront the real criminal justice reform that's needed in this country so that our laws do more to actually provide justice rather than shield those with the greatest responsibility to the public from the law. It is incumbent upon us to give our voices and our votes to the continuing battle for equity and justice.  As the Sterling family said today, the battle is not over; it has only just begun.
While bitterly disappointing, the DOJ's announcement comes as no surprise. According to Kelley et. al, (2016) charges are filed in only one percent of fatal shootings involving police. [1] This precedent equates to government sanctioned murder, a status quo the community and the Urban League at large is simply unwilling to accept. So, now all eyes are on Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has released a statement announcing that the Louisiana State Police will launch its own investigation into the conduct of the officers and the appointment of a special prosecutor who will determine if Officers Salamoni and Lake will face criminal charges by the state. While the Urban League fully supports this step, we will be vigilant in our commitment to ensure that a fair and neutral process is conducted in the pursuit of justice for Alton Sterling, his family, and the city of Baton Rouge. We also encourage the BRPD to examine the conduct of these officers to determine if it meets the expectations of the departments' standard of professionalism. Based on new details released in today's press conference by the Sterling family and their attorneys, it appears that there may be grounds for the officers' termination.
ULLA is actively involved in advocating for criminal justice reform and is encouraged by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's work to establish new policies within the BRPD regarding use of force guidelines. The League is continuing to pursue its own reform-centered, criminal justice policy agenda, which includes a push for expanded trainings on de-escalation, bias police recognition, crisis intervention, and other pertinent issues.[2] The cost to implement these trainings is far less than the cost of losing a life, settling civil suits, and losing public trust. By providing the law enforcement community with this training, those who are entrusted with securing our public safety will have the tools to execute their role more effectively and safely.  We are also reigniting our call for the establishment of an independent, civilian review board or an independent agency to monitor excessive force complaints, officer-involved shootings and fatal force incidents in East Baton Rouge.

For the past five months, ULLA staff has convened hundreds of community members including law enforcement officials, youth, young professionals, community leaders and a cadre of African American residents in East Baton Rouge to facilitate dialogues generating community-based solutions to address public safety and community-police relations. The League surveyed approximately 200 East Baton Rouge residents about their perceptions and experiences with police. Over 60% of respondents indicated that police do not treat all citizens equally according to the law, 67% agreed that the police do not make enough contact with residents and about 80% indicated that they want police to partner with community members and groups to solve problems in their communities. The Urban League of Louisiana is committed to working with the community to develop partnerships with law enforcement to bring about the necessary change.
The world is watching. Our hearts are broken, but our resolve is strong. And we will not stop our fight until the status quo is transformed into justice for all.

A panel of experts talked to WBRZ about their reactions to the DOJ announcement. Prem Burns, former prosecutor of the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office, Pat Englade, former chief of the Baton Rouge Police Department and John Pierre, Southern University Law Center Chancellor were included in the panel. 

Burns said that about 95 percent of cases that go to the Department of Justice go without being prosecuted. 

Pierre said the shooting highlighted that "there are a lot of problems in Baton Rouge that city leaders are going to have to address." 

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