U.S. News

Alton Sterling Shooting by Baton Rouge Police Sparks Outrage, DOJ to Investigate

Cassandra Vinograd and Erik Ortiz
In this Tuesday, July 5, 2016 photo made from video, Alton Sterling is held by two Baton Rouge police officers, with one holding a hand gun, outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La.
Arthur Reed | AP

The U.S. Justice Department will lead a civil rights investigation into the death of a black man shot multiple times by police during a confrontation at a Louisiana convenience store.

Graphic cellphone video circulating online, recorded by a witness early Tuesday, appears to show Alton Sterling, 37, being tackled and shot as two cops pin him to the ground before he is killed. Authorities said he was armed.

His death sparked protests against police brutality in Baton Rouge, and family members and the local NAACP branch called for an independent outside review of the police department.

"I have full confidence that this matter will be investigated thoroughly, impartially and professionally," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a news conference Wednesday.

Edwards, a Democrat, said the investigation into the use of unreasonable or excessive force will be assisted by the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI in the state.

The Justice Department confirmed the opening of the case, but declined to comment further.

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East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he would stand down as the federal investigation looks at whether any laws were broken.

Edwards said he has "very serious" concerns after watching the cellphone video, which he said was "disturbing, to say the least."

At a separate news conference Wednesday, officials identified the officers, both of them white, as Blane Salamoni, a four-year department veteran, and Howie Lake II, a three-year veteran.

Officials wouldn't detail the "altercation" between the officers and Sterling or whether a Taser was reportedly used, but they said police body cameras, dashcam video and any other video from the scene would be part of the investigation.

Baton Rouge police said earlier in a statement that uniformed officers responded to a call after midnight Tuesday involving a black male in a red shirt who was selling CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart. Police said the caller claimed Sterling was acting threatening with a gun.

The video footage released today of the shooting of Alton Sterling... was deeply troubling
Rep. Cedric Richmond

The officers "made contact" with the 5-foot-11 Sterling in the parking lot, and an altercation ensued, police said.

"Sterling was shot during the altercation and died at the scene," the statement said.

It wasn't clear whether both officers shot Sterling or which one fired the fatal shot. They have been placed on administrative leave, "per standard procedure," police added.

Sterling died from multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William Clark said. He wouldn't immediately confirm reports that Sterling was shot seven times.

The national president of the NAACP, Cornell Brooks, called the video hard to watch — but "far harder" to ignore.

"Get on the ground, get on the ground" is heard before two officers confront a man in a red T-shirt. One officer tackles the man, throwing him on the hood of the car and onto the ground. The second officer climbs on and helps hold him down.

One officer appears to shout a warning: "He's got a gun! Gun!"

While the man is on the ground, one officer pulls out his gun. He holds it to the back of the man's head or neck. Shouting is heard, and then two pops — as the camera quickly cuts away. At least two more pops are heard.

Background voices are heard saying "Oh, my God," and "They shot him?" and "They killed this boy."

"Oh, my God," a woman's voice shrieks.

As a convicted felon, Sterling wouldn't be permitted to have a gun. But those who knew him said he kept one to protect himself from robbers.

A Sterling family attorney, state Rep. Edmond Jordan, said that whether Sterling had a firearm was irrelevant because, at the moment he was pinned, the video didn't appear to show him wielding a weapon or pulling one out.

Sterling's sister, Mignon Chambers, said something "needs to be done" in wake of the shooting.

"There's no reason for you to handle him the way that you did," she said. "It wasn't right."

Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling's 15-year-old son, said officers handled the incident "unjustly" and told reporters Wednesday that they killed a man who was "simply trying to earn a living and take care of his children."

"I, for one, will not rest or ... allow him to be swept in the dirt," McMillon said as her son sobbed behind her.

Sterling had recently been residing in a transitional living center, according to The Advocate newspaper.

Mufleh Alatiyat, an employee of the Triple S Food Mart, told The Associated Press that Sterling was generous, often giving away CDs and buying food or drinks for other customers.

I, for one, will not rest or ... allow him to be swept in the dirt
Quinyetta Mcmillon
mother of Sterling's 15-year-old son

Some lawmakers said Sterling's family deserves answers for what happened.

State Rep. Ted James called the shooting a "murder," saying in a statement that it "has made me question what it really means to be land of the free and home of the brave."

James also demanded an independent investigation and scrutiny of the police department's body camera policy.

At Wednesday's news conference, officials said there was body camera video from the officers, but Baton Rouge Police Lt. Jonny Dunnam said it "may not be as good as we hoped for."

During the altercation, the body cameras became dislodged from the officers, but they remained activated, he added.

State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, who sponsored the bill to equip Baton Rouge officers with body cameras, said at Wednesday's news conference that she wants police to stop using those cameras in favor of ones that don't seem to fall off so easily.

Mike McClanahan, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP, said at the same news conference that the two officers should be arrested and that both Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. and Mayor Kip Holden need to step down.

"This is a new day," McClanahan said. "We will not have anybody who allows this type of action to take place."

People protest after Alton Sterling, 37, was shot and killed during an altercation with two Baton Rouge police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5, 2016.
Bryn Stole | Reuters

Both Holden and Dabadie said they wouldn't resign.

"Like you, I am demanding answers," Dabadie said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond cited "a number of unanswered questions" around the "tragedy" — including the level of force and the response of officers afterward.

"The video footage released today of the shooting of Alton Sterling ... was deeply troubling and has understandably evoked strong emotion and anger in our community," Richmond said in a statement. "I share in this anger and join the community in the pursuit of justice."

He called for protests to be conducted "with dignity."

A vigil was planned for Wednesday night outside the convenience store.

Protesters gathered outside the convenience store overnight Tuesday, chanting "black lives matter" and holding signs saying "Honk for justice" as car horns blared.

#AltonSterling was trending on Twitter amid the mounting outrage.

Martin Luther King's youngest daughter, Bernie King, was among those adding her voice.

"May his name and his brutal last breath shake up and transform systems," she wrote on Twitter.

Activists and celebrities also posted about their outrage.