After almost a year of exhaustive investigating, the US Justice Department announced today that it would not file charges against the two Baton Rouge police officers in the Alton Sterling case. You’ll recall that Sterling was the black man shot dead in a scuffle with two white police officers last year. The Obama Justice Department conducted a full investigation, and found no grounds to file federal civil rights charges in the matter. From the federal statement:
The Department examined the facts in this case under all relevant federal criminal statutes. The federal criminal statute applicable to these facts is Title 18, United States Code, Section 242, Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law. In order to proceed with a prosecution under Section 242, prosecutors must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a law enforcement officer acted willfully to deprive an individual of a federally protected right. The right implicated in this matter is the Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable seizure. This right includes the right to be free from unreasonable physical force by police. To prove that a police shooting violated the Fourth Amendment, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the use of force was objectively unreasonable based on all of the surrounding circumstances. The law requires that the reasonableness of an officer’s use of force on an arrestee be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with added perspective of hindsight. The law set forth by the Supreme Court requires that allowances must be made for the fact that law enforcement officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.
Additionally, to prove that a shooting violated section 242, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers acted willfully. This high legal standard – one of the highest standards of intent imposed by law – requires proof that the officer acted with the specific intent to do something the law forbids. 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. In light of this, and for the reasons explained below, the federal investigation concluded that this matter is not a prosecutable violation of the federal statutes.
The investigation revealed that at approximately 12:30 a.m. on July 5, 2016, an individual called 911 from a location near the Triple S Food Mart (“Triple S”) and reported that he had been threatened outside of a store by a black man wearing a red shirt and selling CDs. The caller reported that the man had pulled out a gun and had the gun in his pocket. The caller’s first call disconnected, but he called back a few moments later and reiterated his report. Dispatch relayed that information to Officers Lake and Salamoni, who responded to the Triple S, where they saw Sterling, wearing a red shirt and standing by a table with a stack of CDs.
The subsequent exchange between Sterling and the officers happened very quickly, with the events – from the officers’ initial approach to a struggle on the ground to the shooting – happening in rapid succession. From the moment when Officer Lake gave his first order to Sterling, through the firing of the final shot, the entire encounter lasted less than 90 seconds. More specifically, from the start of the officers’ physical struggle with Sterling on the ground, through the firing of the final shot, the encounter lasted less than 30 seconds.
Multiple videos captured portions or the entirety of the officers’ interaction with Sterling. These include cell-phone videos, surveillance video from the store, and video from the officers’ body cameras and a police vehicle. FBI video forensic experts also provided enhancements of relevant videos for the portion of the struggle that immediately preceded the shooting.
The videos show the officers as they arrived on scene and engaged with Sterling. The videos show that the officers directed 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. Officer Salamoni then pulled out his gun and pointed it at Sterling’s head, at which point Sterling placed his hands on the hood. After Sterling briefly attempted to move his hands from the hood, Officer Lake then used a Taser on Sterling, who fell to his knees, but then began to get back up. The officers ordered him to get down, and Officer Lake attempted unsuccessfully to use his Taser on Sterling again. Officer Salamoni holstered his weapon, and then tackled Sterling; both went to the ground, with Officer Salamoni on top of Sterling, who was on his back with his right hand and shoulder partially under the hood of a car. Officer Lake joined them on the ground, kneeling on Sterling’s left arm while Officer Salamoni attempted to gain control over Sterling’s right arm. Officer Salamoni then yelled, “Going for his pocket. He’s got a gun! Gun!” Officer Salamoni then unsuccessfully attempted to gain control of Sterling’s right hand, while Officer Lake drew his weapon and yelled at Sterling, again directing him not to move. Less than one second later, during a point at which the location of Sterling’s right hand was not visible to the cameras, Officer Salamoni again yelled that Sterling was “going for the gun!” Officer Salamoni then fired three shots into Sterling’s chest.
After the first three shots were fired, Officer Salamoni rolled onto on his back, facing Sterling’s back, with his weapon still drawn. Officer Lake stood behind both of them with his weapon drawn and pointed at Sterling. Sterling began to sit up and roll to his left, with his back to the officers. Sterling brought his right arm across his body toward the ground, and Officer Lake yelled at Sterling to “get on the ground.” As Sterling continued to move, Officer Salamoni fired three more rounds into Sterling’s back. Within a few seconds, Officer Lake reached into Sterling’s right pocket and pulled out a .38 caliber revolver. Investigators later confirmed that Sterling’s gun was loaded with six bullets at the time of this exchange.
Following the shooting, Officers Salamoni and Lake each provided a detailed statement offering his version of how and why this shooting happened. According to the officers, Sterling was large and very strong, and from the very beginning resisted their commands. The officers reported that they responded with multiple different compliance techniques and that Sterling resisted the entire time. Both officers reported that when they were on the ground, they saw Sterling’s right hand in his pocket, with his hand on a gun. Officer Salamoni reported that he saw the gun coming out and attempted to grab it, but Sterling jerked away and attempted to grab the gun again. Officer Salamoni then saw “silver” and knew that he had seen a gun, so he began firing. Both officers reported that after the first three shots, they believed that Sterling was attempting to reach into his right pocket again, so Officer Salamoni fired three more times into Sterling’s back.
- Alton Sterling had a fully loaded weapon in his pocket
- He refused police orders to put his hands on the car, until an officer pointed a weapon at him
- Even then, he tried to remove his hands from the car
- The Taser did not work on him (he was 6’3″ and weighed over 300 pounds)
- The officers could not subdue Sterling, especially not his right hand, which they both testified was reaching for the gun in his right pocket. This could not be verified with the camera, but the fact that his right hand was not under the officers’ control was verified by the camera, as was the fact that he had a loaded pistol in his right pocket
More from the Justice Department statement:
The investigators also consulted with two independent, nationally recognized use-of-force experts with whom the Civil Rights Division has previously consulted in civil rights cases. 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 experts emphasized that the officers were responding to a call that someone matching Sterling’s description had brandished a weapon and threatened another person; that Sterling was large and strong; and that Sterling was failing to follow orders and was struggling with the officers. The experts noted that the officers also attempted to control Sterling through multiple less-than-lethal techniques before ultimately using lethal force in response to Officer Salamoni’s perception that Sterling was attempting to use a gun.
Keep in mind as you watch the coverage over the next few days that Alton Sterling was a thug with a long criminal rap sheet, including:
- 9/09/96 aggravated battery
- 10/31/97 2nd degree battery
- 1/06/98 simple battery
- 5/04/00 public intimidation
- 9/20/00 carnal knowledge of a juvenile
- 9/04/01 domestic violence
- 5/24/05 burglary of an inhabited dwelling place
- 7/11/05 receiving stolen things
- 9/12/05 burglary of inhabited dwelling place
- 3/17/06 simple criminal damage to property, simple robbery, simple theft, drug possession, misrepresentation during booking, simple battery, aggravated battery
- 4/12/06 aggravated battery, simple criminal damage to property, disturbing the peace, unauthorized entry
- 4/04/08 domestic abuse battery
- 6/03/09 resisting an officer, drug possession, receiving stolen things, possession of stolen firearm, illegal carrying of a weapon with CDs, sound reproduct without consent
- 10/12/09 illegal carrying of weapon, marijuana possession
- 8/13/15 failure to register as a sex offender
- 4/08/16 failure to register as a sex offender
- 6/14/16 ecstacy and marijuana possession
As The Hayride pointed out last summer in the wake of the protests following the shooting:
What this arrest record shows is not the story the family and the “community” is trying to paint, of a “misunderstood” poor father trying to earn a living selling CD’s. He got arrested three weeks ago on drug possession – that’s hardly somebody trying to turn his life around. His arrest record shows that, charitably, he was a wannabe drug dealer but wasn’t very good at it.
And since he knew that gun was illegal and he was likely to be off to jail for a good while for having it, you can understand struggling with the police. Not to mention that if he was arrested three weeks ago for possession of ecstasy, you now have at least something to speculate about as to why he could be tazed and it wouldn’t even affect him. We know that gang-bangers use ecstasy, or a form of it called thizz which is something akin to crystal meth, as fuel for street violence, and it’s often mixed with marijuana for maximum effect. There was even a sizable drug case involving a rap label that was apparently a front for an ecstasy ring a few years ago.
Again, not a whole lot of this matters where the shooting is concerned unless the cops had a reasonable suspicion he was trying to get his gun.
The facts uncovered by the Justice Department indicate that the cops had a reasonable suspicion that he was trying to get his gun. To be clear, they were only investigating potential civil rights violations; the feds have handed the investigation back to state authorities to pursue possible criminal charges. Which I’m sure will not be filed, because what are the grounds?
Note well that this federal investigation had long been underway by the time Jeff Sessions took over the Justice Department. This result cannot be blamed (“blamed”) on Trump. Indeed, right after the shooting, a retired police officer friend of mine who has strong views about police violence surprised me by saying that based on his viewing of the tape, the officers’ conduct was defensible. I think what the acting US Attorney in Baton Rouge said today is true:
“There are no winners here, and there are no victories for anybody. A man has died, a father, a nephew has died. My heart goes out to the family.”
This is a tragedy. But it is not racism, and it is not police brutality.