Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET
The two police officers involved in last summer’s fatal shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling will not be charged, The Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing four people familiar with the matter. Sterling’s death sparked outcry in July when video footage from bystanders’ cell phones showed him being shot and killed by the officers from the Baton Rouge Police Department.
Shortly before the incident, the two officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, received a 911 phone call from a homeless man, who reported that a person believed to be Sterling was threatening him with a handgun. At the time, Sterling was selling CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge. When the officers arrived at the scene, they tased Sterling, forced him onto the hood of a nearby sedan, then pinned him to the ground. Video footage reveals one officer shouting, “He’s got a gun!” immediately before the shooting.
A search warrant affidavit claims the officers saw the butt of a gun in Sterling’s pocket, and a witness later reported seeing the police retrieve a weapon from Sterling’s person. It remains unclear whether Sterling reached for the gun during the confrontation, though the same witness claims he did not see a weapon in Sterling’s hands.
Sterling had a lengthy arrest record that included charges of domestic violence and aggravated battery. As a Louisiana resident over the age of 18, Sterling would have been licensed to carry a weapon without a permit. As a felon, however, carrying the gun was illegal.
In the wake of the incident, hundreds of protesters gathered in Baton Rouge to demand justice for what they believed was a wrongful and racially motivated attack. Both Salamoni and Lake had previously been investigated for the use of excessive force on the job. Without addressing the incident directly, former President Obama spoke shorty after the shooting occurred, stating that “Americans should feel outraged at episodes of police brutality since they're rooted in long-simmering racial discord.”
At the time, Louisiana U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond called the video footage “deeply troubling” and implored the U.S. Justice Department “to conduct a full and transparent investigation.” A civil-rights investigation began on July 7, 2016, just two days after the shooting.
As of Tuesday, Sterling’s family had not heard from the Justice Department regarding its decision. On Wednesday, the department publicly announced the close of the investigation, citing insufficient evidence. Their statement concluded:
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.
Although this is the first time the Justice Department has refused to prosecute officers in a high-profile case under newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the ruling is not uncommon. Under the Obama administration, the officers involved in the 2014 killing of Michael Brown and the 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark did not face charges.
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