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No federal charges in Alton Sterling shooting

A U.S. attorney says there is not enough evidence to pursue federal charges against two white officers in the police shooting death of a black man in Baton Rouge. State authorities can still conduct their own investigation.

The investigation revealed that at approximately 12:30 a.m. on July 5, 2016, an individual called 911 from a location near the Triple S Food Mart (“Triple S”) and reported that he had been threatened outside of a store by a black man wearing a red shirt and selling CDs.  The caller reported that the man had pulled out a gun and had the gun in his pocket.  The caller’s first call disconnected, but he called back a few moments later and reiterated his report.  Dispatch relayed that information to Officers Lake and Salamoni, who responded to the Triple S, where they saw Sterling, wearing a red shirt and standing by a table with a stack of CDs.

The subsequent exchange between Sterling and the officers happened very quickly, with the events – from the officers’ initial approach to a struggle on the ground to the shooting – happening in rapid succession.  From the moment when Officer Lake gave his first order to Sterling, through the firing of the final shot, the entire encounter lasted less than 90 seconds.  More specifically, from the start of the officers’ physical struggle with Sterling on the ground, through the firing of the final shot, the encounter lasted less than 30 seconds.

Multiple videos captured portions or the entirety of the officers’ interaction with Sterling.  These include cell-phone videos, surveillance video from the store, and video from the officers’ body cameras and a police vehicle.  FBI video forensic experts also provided enhancements of relevant videos for the portion of the struggle that immediately preceded the shooting.

The videos show the officers as they arrived on scene and engaged with Sterling.  The videos show that the officers directed Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car.  When Sterling did not comply, the officers placed their hands on Sterling, and he struggled with the officers.  Officer Salamoni then pulled out his gun and pointed it at Sterling’s head, at which point Sterling placed his hands on the hood.

After Sterling briefly attempted to move his hands from the hood, Officer Lake then used a Taser on Sterling, who fell to his knees, but then began to get back up.  The officers ordered him to get down, and Officer Lake attempted unsuccessfully to use his Taser on Sterling again.

Officer Salamoni holstered his weapon, and then tackled Sterling; both went to the ground, with Officer Salamoni on top of Sterling, who was on his back with his right hand and shoulder partially under the hood of a car.

Officer Lake joined them on the ground, kneeling on Sterling’s left arm while Officer Salamoni attempted to gain control over Sterling’s right arm.  Officer Salamoni then yelled, “Going for his pocket. He’s got a gun! Gun!”  Officer Salamoni then unsuccessfully attempted to gain control of Sterling’s right hand, while Officer Lake drew his weapon and yelled at Sterling, again directing him not to move.

Less than one second later, during a point at which the location of Sterling’s right hand was not visible to the cameras, Officer Salamoni again yelled that Sterling was “going for the gun!”  Officer Salamoni then fired three shots into Sterling’s chest.

After the first three shots were fired, Officer Salamoni rolled onto on his back, facing Sterling’s back, with his weapon still drawn.  Officer Lake stood behind both of them with his weapon drawn and pointed at Sterling.  Sterling began to sit up and roll to his left, with his back to the officers.  Sterling brought his right arm across his body toward the ground, and Officer Lake yelled at Sterling to “get on the ground.”

As Sterling continued to move, Officer Salamoni fired three more rounds into Sterling’s back.  Within a few seconds, Officer Lake reached into Sterling’s right pocket and pulled out a .38 caliber revolver.

Investigators later confirmed that Sterling’s gun was loaded with six bullets at the time of this exchange.

Following the shooting, Officers Salamoni and Lake each provided a detailed statement offering his version of how and why this shooting happened.

According to the officers, Sterling was large and very strong, and from the very beginning resisted their commands.  The officers reported that they responded with multiple different compliance techniques and that Sterling resisted the entire time.

Both officers reported that when they were on the ground, they saw Sterling’s right hand in his pocket, with his hand on a gun.  Officer Salamoni reported that he saw the gun coming out and attempted to grab it, but Sterling jerked away and attempted to grab the gun again.

Officer Salamoni then saw “silver” and knew that he had seen a gun, so he began firing.  Both officers reported that after the first three shots, they believed that Sterling was attempting to reach into his right pocket again, so Officer Salamoni fired three more times into Sterling’s back.

After extensive investigation into this tragic event, career Justice Department prosecutors have concluded that the evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officers Salamoni and Lake willfully violated Sterling’s civil rights.

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.

Moreover, two different, independent experts opined that this shooting was not unreasonable given the circumstances.  With respect to the first series of shots, the experts assessed that it was not unreasonable for Officer Salamoni to use lethal force, in light of all of the circumstances referenced above.

With respect to the second series of shots, both experts emphasized that officers are trained to eliminate a threat, and that Sterling appeared to pose a threat because he was still moving and his right hand was not visible to Officer Salamoni.

Accordingly, the federal investigation into this incident has been closed without prosecution.  Federal officials intend to provide the investigative file to the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, which intends to conduct its own investigation into whether the conduct at issue in this investigation violated state law.

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