Officers in Alton Sterling case await word on discipline
Two Baton Rouge police officers involved in the 2016 shooting death of Alton Sterling are expected to learn soon whether they’ll face discipline by their department as police prepare to release four more videos recorded the night of the shooting.
Baton Rouge police Chief Murphy Paul is expected to hold a news conference and announce the decision at 4 p.m. CT Friday (5 p.m. ET), according to a law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the investigation.
City police leaders will determine in disciplinary hearings whether officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II violated any policies or procedures, Paul has said.
State authorities announced this week that Salamoni was justified in shooting Sterling outside a Baton Rouge convenience store, and that no charges would be brought against him or Lake.
After the announcement, police will release four videos yet to be made public: footage that sources with direct knowledge of the investigation describe as “very graphic” and “disturbing.”
The fatal encounter between the two white police officers and Sterling, a black man, helped spur renewed Black Lives Matter protests across the nation.
Previously released cell phone video showed Sterling, 37, pinned to the ground by the officers before he was shot on July 5, 2016.
Police said they believed Sterling was reaching for a gun. The Justice Department said in May that evidence couldn’t prove or disprove that Sterling was reaching for a weapon, and a state report released Tuesday said Sterling had a loaded .38-caliber handgun in his right front pocket.
As the officers await word on their future, Salamoni’s attorney said he thought department leaders decided to fire his client months ago.
“No matter what evidence we give them (at the hearing), they’re not going to listen. It doesn’t matter what we present to them — they’re going to fire him,” attorney John McLindon said.
That comment comes against a backdrop in which Paul’s boss — Mayor Sharon Weston Broome — is on record as saying she believes Salamoni’s firing is warranted. She told reporters Tuesday she hasn’t wavered “on what I have said in the past.”
“I will stand by what I have said,” she said.
Paul said Tuesday he and three deputy chiefs will preside over the hearings for Salamoni and Lake.
The panel will decide whether “their behavior was consistent with the policy and procedures of the police department,” the chief said.
State Attorney General Jeff Landry released a report Tuesday concluding the shooting was justified, 10 months after federal prosecutors determined they wouldn’t file civil rights charges against the officers.
But the disciplinary hearings could focus on factors besides justification, such as authorities’ determination that Salamoni pointed a gun at Sterling’s head early in the encounter, and while swearing, threatened to shoot him in the head if he moved.
That, for example, is a police policy issue, rather than a question of constitutional violations, the state report cites a use-of-force expert as saying.
If the officers disagree with whatever decisions the panel makes, they can file an appeal with a municipal fire and civil service board.
‘You’ll cry’ after seeing the other videos, relative says
The killing gripped the nation in part because two videos taken by bystanders, each less than a minute long, were released publicly shortly after the shooting and captured the final part of Sterling’s struggle with the two white officers.
The police chief said he’ll release four other videos after the officers’ hearings: the officers’ two body camera recordings, the store surveillance video and dashboard camera video from a patrol car.
The woman who raised Sterling, Sandra Sterling, told reporters she’s seen the unreleased videos — and that they will spark more public outrage.
“When you see those other … videos of Blane Salamoni killing Alton Sterling, you’ll cry again,” Sandra Sterling said. “And when you cry again, you’ll be telling the Sterling family, ‘I’m sorry.’ “
In a roughly 30-minute surveillance video from the Triple S Convenience store, Sterling is seen at the front of the store before the shooting, sitting at a table selling CDs, smoking cigarettes and listening to rap music, the sources say of the footage.
Authorities have said Salamoni and Lake went there after police received a 911 call from a man who said someone had pulled a gun on him.
According to the state report released this week, Sterling refused to heed the officers’ commands to put his hands on the hood of a car, and each officer reached for and tried to control Sterling’s arms.
Officer threatened early to shoot Sterling in head, authorities say
When Sterling spun around and pulled his right arm away from Salamoni, Salamoni drew his gun, the state report says. The footage from Salamoni’s body camera, sources with direct knowledge of the investigation said, show Salamoni at this point training his gun at Sterling’s head.
Salamoni yells and threatens to shoot — though the state report and CNN’s sources offer different accounts on exactly what was said.
“Put your hands on the f***ing car or I will blow your f***ing head off! Put your hands on the car or I will blow your f***ing head off!” Salamoni says, according to the sources describing the video.
The state report quotes Salamoni this way: “Don’t f****** move, or I’ll shoot you in your f****** head.”
A struggle, followed by the shooting
Sterling then complied but eventually resisted Lake’s attempts to gain control of his hands, the state report says.
Lake twice used a Taser on Sterling, with little to no effect. Salamoni eventually holstered his gun, tackled Sterling to the ground and tried to control Sterling’s right arm, and Lake knelt and tried to control Sterling’s left arm, the state report says.
At one point, the already-released cell phone videos show, someone — Salamoni, according to the state report — shouting, “He’s got a gun!” In one video, an officer draws something from his waistband and points it at Sterling.
“If you move, I swear to God,” Salamoni tells Sterling, according to the report.
At this moment, the state report says, Sterling was positioned in a way that concealed his right front pocket. The officers continue to try to control his hands.
“He’s going for the gun,” Salamoni yells, according to the state report.
The report says Salamoni first shot Sterling three times in the chest and then rolled off him.
Sterling sits up. As Lake yelled at Sterling to get on the ground, Sterling rolled away from Salamoni, who fired three more shots, this time into Sterling’s back. Sterling’s hands and right side are concealed from Salamoni’s view, the Louisiana attorney general said.
Lake removed a loaded .38-caliber handgun from Sterling’s right front pocket, the report says.
Attorney general: Drugs may have been a factor
In May, federal prosecutors found there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant civil rights charges against Salamoni and Lake.
The feds cited use-of-force experts who determined the officers’ actions were reasonable under the circumstances — including that the two employed several less-than-lethal techniques before using force, and that Sterling struggled with the officers and failed to follow orders.
The Justice Department also said that evidence couldn’t prove or disprove Salamoni’s assertion that Sterling was reaching for a gun.
Landry, the state attorney general, said Tuesday that Sterling had illicit drugs in his system.
“Considering this, it is reasonable that Mr. Sterling was under the influence, and that contributed to his noncompliance,” Landry said.
An autopsy indicated Sterling had cocaine, methamphetamine, hydrocodone, a marijuana ingredient, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in his blood.
Sterling family attorney Chris Stewart said this week that every action was “initiated by the officers.”
He also said Salamoni’s threat to shoot Sterling in the head was illegal.
“That is not the behavior that any officer should have,” Stewart said. “In our opinion, that is criminal.”
Sterling’s five children filed a wrongful death lawsuit in June against the city of Baton Rouge, police department and others.