The Department of Justice said Wednesday that it will not bring federal charges against white police officers involved in the high-profile shooting of a black man last year in Baton Rouge, La., that had ignited protests around the country over the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers.
"All of the prosecutors and agents involved in this case have come to the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to charge either officer with a federal crime," said Acting U.S. Atty. Corey Amundson, ending a 10-month federal investigation into the death of 37-year-old Alton Sterling.
While no federal civil rights charges will be filed, Amundson said a "state investigation will follow," leaving open the possibility of charges in Louisiana against the officers.
The inquiry sought to determine if officers had violated Sterling's civil rights and whether the shooting was justified. It's the first investigation into a high-profile police shooting to be completed in the Trump administration under Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.
Sterling was shot to death July 5 after police responded to a 911 call reporting a man making a threat with a gun in front of a market. Witness and police accounts differed on whether Sterling threatened officers and if he reached for a gun. A focal point of the investigation hinged on whether Sterling had threatened the officers with a gun or if the officers perceived a threat that led them to fire six bullets into his body. The Department of Justice and the FBI launched the inquiry two days after his death.
Amundson said officers recovered a .38-caliber revolver loaded with six bullets from Sterling's right pocket after a 90-second altercation. He cited videos released at the time of the shooting in which officers shout that Sterling has a gun before shooting him. Justice Department officials said they reviewed cellphone, surveillance, body camera and dash cam videos. Police said at the time that the officers' body cameras had fallen off before the shooting.
Amundson said it was unclear from the investigation if Sterling had reached for the gun. But he said that was not enough to bring charges against the officers.
"We cannot establish that Mr. Sterling was not reaching for a gun, or more accurately, that officers did not believe he was reaching for a gun," he said.
"To prove a federal criminal civil rights violation, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers acted unreasonably and willfully. That is, they acted with a specific intent to do something that the law forbids," Amundson said.
"Being reckless, escalating a situation that may have been de-escalated — those things are not a basis under the law for a federal civil rights prosecution," he said.
"Given the totality of the circumstances — that the officers had been fighting with Sterling and had attempted less-than-lethal methods of control; that they knew Sterling had a weapon; that Sterling had reportedly brandished a gun at another person; and that Sterling was much larger and stronger than either officer, the department cannot prove either that the shots were unconstitutional or that they were willful," the department added in a statement.
Amundson said investigators determined that the officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, "were not unreasonable." Still, he said, "experts criticized aspects of the officers' technique."
He also confirmed earlier reports that Salamoni, who had been on the force for three years, shot Sterling. The officers were put on leave after the shooting.
Louisiana Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry said his office would investigate the shooting, but did not provide details.
"At this time, and due to the nature of their investigation, my office has not been privy to any investigative materials created and collected by the USDOJ. Therefore, I cannot and will not comment on their findings beyond that they were made after an exhaustive investigation and a thorough review of the evidence," Landry said in a statement.
Chris Stewart, a lawyer who represents the Sterling family, said the "actions of the officers that night were absolutely heinous" and that the state had a "phenomenal" case against the men.
Officials from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and the New Orleans field office for the Federal Bureau of Investigation joined in Wednesday's announcement, which had been the subject of rumors that had left Baton Rouge on edge for more than a week. Local politicians and Sterling's family members had complained that the Justice Department had not given them advance warning of its decision.
"I'm still emotionally messed up because things I heard in this meeting today … horrible," said Sterling's aunt, Sandra Sterling, who said she rejected the department's findings that were presented to the family on Wednesday.
She cried as she described learning from federal officials that Salamoni pointed a gun at Sterling's head and said he would "kill you." The Justice Department's report summary said the officer pointed the gun at Sterling's head when he did not comply with commands to put his hands on the hood of a car after police showed up. It said Sterling then put his hands on the hood and moved them, prompting Lake to shoot him twice with a stun gun before Salamoni tackled Sterling to the ground. But the report did not include the "kill you" quote from Salamoni, which Sterling family lawyers said is documented in unreleased video and audio.
"What we saw on the news was nothing compared to what you all are going to see. … It's so much worse to come," Sandra Sterling said.
The decision to not bring federal charges was reported on Tuesday by several news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times. Small groups of protesters had gathered to demonstrate against the decision that night. Baton Rogue police reported three arrests, and the city was bracing for more demonstrations after Amundson's press conference.
Speaking at a press conference after the announcement, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards called for city residents to avoid violence.
"While many … may not agree with their decision today, it is incumbent upon us to make sure peace remains," Edwards said. "We still have too many people in our community who are afraid of the police, and too many police officers afraid of members of our community."
Protests in Baton Rouge over the shooting led to 200 arrests last year. In addition to demonstrating against Sterling's death, the protests were a response to broader tensions in Baton Rouge between police and African Americans, who said they had been long mistreated by officers.
Sterling was shot in front of the Triple S Food Mart, where he was known to hawk music CDs. In videos, the officers first shout at Sterling to get on the ground, then tackle him. While he's pinned down, a voice is heard yelling: "He's got a gun! Gun!" before gunshots are heard.
The shooting was among a string of fatal incidents involving police last July.
The day after Sterling was shot, the police shooting in Minnesota of Philando Castile set off protests after his girlfriend went on Facebook for a live broadcast showing Castile bleeding in the driver's seat of his car. Castile, who was 32 and black, was pulled over by an officer outside St. Paul and shot after informing the officer he had a weapon, which he was licensed to carry, in the vehicle.
The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who is Latino, was charged with second-degree manslaughter and dangerous discharge of a firearm. His trial is expected to begin later this year.
The day after Castile's shooting, five officers in Dallas were shot by an Army-trained sniper during a protest over police shootings. The 25-year-old shooter, Micah Johnson, was black. Police said he left a trail of evidence that he wanted to kill white officers in retaliation for police shootings of black men. Officers responding to the shooting killed Johnson.
Ten days later, three officers were shot dead in Baton Rouge by 29-year-old Gavin Long. The former Marine, who was black, had a history of online ramblings in which he described violence as the solution to the oppression of black Americans. Long was also killed by responding police officers.