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Baton Rogue police officers won’t be charged in Alton Sterling’s death

Alton Sterling was killed in 2016.
Alton Sterling was killed in 2016.(East Baton Rogue Sheriff’s Office/File)

NEW YORK — A pair of white police officers in Baton Rouge, La., will not be prosecuted by state authorities in the fatal shooting of a black man there almost two years ago. The decision brings another closely watched and widely scrutinized investigation of potential police misconduct to an end without charges.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announced his conclusion at a news conference Tuesday, almost 11 months after the Department of Justice declined to bring charges in the death of the man, Alton Sterling. The attorney general’s decision was widely expected, in part because officers are rarely charged in connection with on-duty shootings.

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In a separate written report that described the efforts by the officers to gain control of Sterling, and their belief that he was armed, Landry’s office said it had “concluded that the officers in question acted as reasonable officers under existing law and were justified in their use of force.”

The decisions by Landry and by the Justice Department effectively end the threat of criminal prosecutions against officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II.

The officers were called to the Triple S Food Mart on July 5, 2016, to respond to a report that a black man in a red shirt had brandished a gun and threatened someone. The officers and the man, Sterling, ended up in a confrontation that left Sterling dead, prompted large protests in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital, and broadened the national debate about law enforcement tactics and the influence of race on US policing.

In a widely seen cellphone video of the encounter between the officers and Sterling, 37, the officers hold Sterling down, and at one point someone can be heard saying, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” An officer immediately draws his weapon and, after some more shouting, what appear to be gunshots are heard. The camera points elsewhere, and there are more apparent gunshots. Salamoni fired all of the rounds.

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When the camera’s lens returns to Sterling, who had been selling CDs, neither officer is atop him; instead, he lies on the ground, bleeding.

Another video of the shooting, filmed by the owner of the store, depicted the encounter from a different angle. That video showed one of the officers removing something from Sterling’s pocket. Witnesses later said they saw a handgun on the ground next to Sterling — the federal government said it was a loaded .38 caliber revolver — but his relatives said they were not aware that he owned a gun.

Sterling had a long criminal history, including convictions for battery and illegal possession of a gun. The Justice Department, which said it could not meet the high legal standard required to charge a police officer with willfully violating someone’s civil rights, closed its inquiry last year. That decision was a significant disappointment to members of Sterling’s family and other critics of the police, who regarded the shooting as a murder. In a summary of its findings, the department said it had reviewed multiple videos of the encounter and interviewed both officers, who said Sterling had been resistant throughout the encounter.

When the Justice Department ended its review, there were renewed protests in Baton Rouge, but they were relatively muted compared to those the previous summer. It then fell to Landry to determine whether the state would bring any charges. In his announcement, Landry broadly echoed the Justice Department’s findings and defended the conduct of the officers, saying, for example, that their efforts to gain control of Sterling’s hands were “well-founded and reasonable under the circumstances and under Louisiana law.” He also said the officers were justified in their concern about whether Sterling was armed.

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Landry noted that it was not his office’s role “to determine whether the Baton Rouge Police Department’s policy was followed, or if certain tactics or language was more appropriate than others.”

Salamoni and Lake have been on paid leave since the shooting.