BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — The Department of Justice closed its investigation into the death of Alton Sterling on Wednesday, announcing it would not bring federal charges against two police officers who were involved in the controversial, fatal shooting last year.
Prosecutors “found insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges” against the officers, said Corey Amundson, acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana. “It is not enough to show that the officer made a mistake, acted negligently, acted by accident or mistake, or even exercised bad judgment.”
“Although Sterling’s death is tragic, the evidence does not meet these substantial evidentiary requirements,” he added.
This is the first time that the department declined to prosecute police officers since Jeff Sessions became attorney general. The prosecutors who led the investigation are career public servants, not political appointees. The Louisiana attorney general’s office is investigating the case and could still charge the officers under state law.
The Sterling family’s attorney Chris Stewart called on Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to “just give justice where it’s due.”
“I suffered” said Alton’s aunt Sandra Sterling, at a press conference. “Alton was human. He’s no longer here, but his voice still will be heard through us.”
Closing the Justice Department’s probe won’t end the questions about Sterling’s death though.
On the night of July 5, 2016, Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howe Lake responded to a call about a man threatening people with a handgun. Standing outside was Sterling, a 37-year-old father, selling CDs. After a brief interaction, the officers tackled Sterling, then according to eyewitness video first obtained by The Daily Beast, Lake shouted “gun,” and Salamoni shot Sterling six times in the chest. He died minutes later.
That video, shot by store owner Abdullah Muflahi, showed Sterling’s hands were empty after he was shot and he did not appear to be moving his hand towards his pocket where his gun was.
After reviewing video from body cameras, dashboard cameras, eyewitnesses, and surveillance cameras, as well as forensic evidence, federal investigators said the officers ordered Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car.
“When Sterling did not comply, the officers placed their hands on Sterling, and he struggled with the officers,” a statement that was read aloud during the press conference said. “Officer Salamoni then pulled out his gun and pointed it at Sterling’s head, at which point Sterling placed his hands on the hood.”
Sterling then allegedly attempted to take his hands off the hood, leading Officer Lake to use a Taser on him. Sterling fell to his knees and struggled to get up before officers tackled him. After they tussled on the ground, Salamoni attempted to gain control over Sterling’s right arm but could not. It was at that moment Salamoni yelled, “Going for his pocket. He’s got a gun! Gun!”
“Officer Salamoni then unsuccessfully attempted to gain control of Sterling’s right hand,” the statement said, adding that Salamoni fired after he claimed verbally Sterling was “going for his gun!” Three shots were fired into Sterling’s chest, followed by three more.
Both officers gave detailed reports to police claiming they saw “Sterling’s right hand in his pocket, with his hand on a gun.”
Amundson said the position of Sterling’s right hand at this moment was obscured and that prosecutors at trial would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sterling was or was not reaching for his weapon.
Two external experts on police use of force told the Justice Department officers’ behavior wasn’t exemplary, but also not illegal.
“While both experts criticized aspects of the officers’ techniques, they also concluded that the officers’ actions were reasonable under the circumstances and thus met constitutional standards.”
The most clear video of the incident is likely surveillance footage from a camera outside the store, which was obtained under questionable circumstances by police. Federal investigators said they have reviewed it, but it has not been released to the public.
Muflahi, the store owner, said after he was locked in the back of a police cruiser, officers entered the store’s back room and ripped the surveillance equipment out of the wall.
“I was pounding on the car window when they went into the store,” Muflahi told The Daily Beast at the time, explaining he wanted to be inside when they took the video.
According to Muflahi, he and other eyewitnesses were detained for four hours and their cell phones were confiscated. Muflahi alleged in a lawsuit against the police that he was only allowed to leave the car to urinate against the wall of his store under watch by the officers.
Muflahi said police confiscated the video equipment minutes after the shooting at midnight. Police in a search warrant said they began the search at 5:50 a.m. This suggests that the detective waited five hours before he searched the store and seized the surveillance video.
Muflahi alleges police confiscated the video before they had a warrant, which he also said they never showed him.
Sterling was killed within days of another black man shot and killed by police in controversial circumstances, Philando Castile of Minnesota. The two incidents reignited activism around the country, including a protest in Dallas where five police officers were killed by a black militant. The Dallas massacre then inspired another black man to shoot and kill two Baton Rouge cops and a sheriff’s deputy.
Thousands of people protested against the Baton Rouge police last summer, leading to a harsh crackdown by officers in riot gear and armored vehicles. The department faced criticism for the handling of its protests last summer where they arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters for misdemeanor obstruction of a highway, booking many of them with identical police reports. (The district attorney declined to prosecute many of the cases and the department later agreed to refrain from mass arrests.)
Local officials and police are bracing for major protests in Baton Rouge in the wake of Wednesday’s decision. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, three people were arrested last night and booked with felony aggravated obstruction of a highway Tuesday night.