Police killing of Alton Sterling to be investigated by Department of Justice

Louisiana authorities hand inquiry into fatal shooting of black man by white officer over to federal authorities following calls from family and community

The fatal police shooting of an African American man by white officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will be investigated by the US Department of Justice’s civil rights division, after disturbing cellphone video of the incident emerged on Tuesday.

Thirty-seven-year-old Alton Sterling was shot dead after two officers wrestled him to the ground and appeared to open fire shortly after one officer held a gun near point-blank over Sterling’s chest.

The eyewitness video, which went viral shortly after it was published, prompted peaceful protests on the streets of Baton Rouge on Tuesday evening.

Alton Sterling
Alton Sterling, who was shot dead by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photograph: Reuters

Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards announced on Wednesday morning that the investigation into the shooting had been handed over to federal authorities, following calls from community leaders and members of Sterling’s family for the federal government to intervene.

The decision, a rare occurrence following officer-involved deaths, was welcomed by the parish’s district attorney.

Edwards described the video as “disturbing to say the least” and called for calm throughout the city.

“There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that this incident is going to be investigated impartially, professionally and thoroughly by the United States Department of Justice civil rights division.

“Hopefully when the community understands that, the tensions will ease and we will continue to press for calm and patience.”

Sterling’s death is the latest in a line of police killings of African Americans in the US to capture national attention, the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Walter Scott in South Carolina, both of which were captured on video by witnesses, sparked claims of racially biased policing throughout the United States.

At an emotional press conference on Wednesday morning, Sterling’s 15-year-old son, Cameron, broke down in tears, and Sterling’s partner, Quinyetta McMillan – the boy’s mother – demanded justice for Sterling.

“He [Cameron] had to watch this as this was put all over the outlets,” she said, with reference to the cellphone video. “As a mother I have now been forced to raise a son who is going to remember what happened to his father.”

Baton Rouge footage shows police killing of Alton Sterling. Warning: This video contains graphic images

“The individuals involved in his murder took away a man with children who depended upon their daddy on a daily basis,” she added, arguing he “simply tried to earn a living to take care of his children”.

Baton Rouge police said in a statement that they had responded to a 911 call reporting Sterling had been selling CDs outside of a convenience store and had threatened the caller with a gun.

In the cellphone video, one officer can be heard shouting “He’s got a gun. Gun,” shortly before shots ring out off-camera. The store’s owner, Abdul Muflahi, told local news that one officer had first used a Taser on Sterling before the struggle occurred and that officers shot him “four to six times”.

Muflahi added that Sterling did not have the gun in his hands at the time the officers opened fire, but he witnessed police remove a firearm from his pocket after he was killed.

The East Baton Rouge coroner’s office confirmed that Sterling died of multiple gunshot wounds to the back and chest.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Baton Rouge police chief Carl Dabadie named the two officers involved as 28-year-old Blane Salamoni, a four-year veteran of the department, and 29-year-old Howie Lake, a three-year veteran. Both have been placed on administrative leave but it remains unclear if both officers opened fire.

Howie Lake, left, and Blane Salamoni
Police officers involved in the Alton Sterling shooting: Howie Lake, left, and Blane Salamoni. Composite: Acadian Ambulance/Facebook & Parkview Baptist High School

Local media reports indicate that Lake had been involved in a previous shooting in December 2014, when he and five other officers were placed on administrative leave after shooting a fleeing suspect who had shot at officers. The suspect survived the shooting.

Sterling had a criminal record, including a conviction for engaging in sexual intercourse with a juvenile, recorded in the year he turned 21.

But McMillan quickly dismissed reports detailing Sterling’s criminal past. “He is not what the mass media is making him out to be,” she said.

The incident sparked uproar on social media as Sterling’s name trended on Twitter on Tuesday evening. In Baton Rouge around 200 people took to the streets on Tuesday night and vowed to protest outside the city hall on Wednesday.

Sterling’s death marked the 558th fatal encounter involving US law enforcement officers in 2016, according to The Counted, the Guardian’s nationwide investigation into police use of force. The project revealed that 1,146 people were killed by police in America in 2015, at a rate of over three fatalities a day. African American men aged between 15 and 34 were nine times more likely to be killed than any other demographic group.

There have been 11 officer-involved deaths in Louisiana so far this year, meaning the state has the 16th highest rate of fatal encounters in the US.

Jamira Burley, a campaign manager with Amnesty International USA, argued that the video evidence in Sterling’s case should prompt state lawmakers to revise statues governing police use of lethal force in Louisiana.

“The use of lethal force in the US continues unabated due to inadequate laws and the lack of accountability for officers who are accused of using unnecessary or excessive force. Without reforms, there will be more deaths,” Burley said.

“According to international law, lethal force must only be used as an absolute last resort to prevent death or serious injury. Laws in Louisiana, and across the country, must be brought into line with international standards.”


Oliver Laughland in New York

The GuardianTramp

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