The Justice Department will not file charges in the fatal shooting of a black man by white police officers last year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, according to two people familiar with the decision.
Alton B. Sterling, 37, was shot dead last July by the local police after being pinned to the ground by officers who were arresting him. His death prompted a widespread outcry, and the Justice Department’s civil rights division opened an inquiry in coordination with the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Baton Rouge.
The decision was the first high-profile case in which the department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided not to bring charges against law enforcement. Earlier Tuesday, an officer in South Carolina, Michael T. Slager — charged in the fatal shooting of a black man, Walter L. Scott — pleaded guilty to a single count of using excessive force to deprive Scott of his civil rights under a plea deal in which federal and state officials will not pursue other charges against him.
Sessions’ predecessor, Loretta E. Lynch, made examinations of local law enforcement a priority, releasing a report last August that illustrated a systematic pattern of discrimination by Baltimore’s police department, which had disproportionately stopped and searched black residents.
Last summer, President Barack Obama denounced “the racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system,” while emphasizing that his comments were not an attack on law enforcement itself.
In his first months as attorney general, Sessions has ordered a broad review of federal agreements with law enforcement agencies, such as the one proposed to overhaul the Baltimore police, saying that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” entire departments.
But even under Obama, officials saw challenges in bringing charges in Sterling’s death. The bar for charging police officers with federal civil rights violations is extremely high, and such prosecutions are rare. The Obama administration, which cultivated an aggressive reputation on such cases, declined to prosecute officers in several high-profile deaths, most notably the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Tuesday’s plea deal with Slager is a notable exception.
The Justice Department must still decide whether to bring charges in other major cases, including the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Officials have said that case poses challenges because the boy was holding a toy gun.
Lynch authorized prosecutors last year to seek charges in the death of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer. Civil rights prosecutors have been presenting evidence to a grand jury in that case; the officer has said his use of force was justified.
The South Carolina and Baton Rouge shootings were captured on video and spread across social media, stoking debate about race and criminal justice.
In Baton Rouge, two officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, were responding to a call reporting that a black man in a red shirt selling music CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart there had threatened the caller with a gun.
A cellphone video of Sterling’s death, released in July, showed an officer pushing Sterling onto the hood of a police car and tackling him to the ground. The officers held him down on the pavement as one appeared to hold a gun above his chest. Both officers were placed on administrative leave last year.
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on Tuesday.