A video of a Baton Rouge police officer shooting a suspect in the chest at point-blank range is “disturbing to say the least,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday.
Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old man who was selling homemade CDs outside a convenience store, was shot and killed early Tuesday during what police described as “some type of altercation” with two officers.
The governor said the U.S. Department of Justice has accepted his request to lead the investigation, adding he will demand that the probe be conducted “thoroughly, impartially, and professionally.” The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting on Wednesday.
Officials are hoping their proactive request for a federal review will prevent the kind of citizen backlash seen in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago. The decision by the St. Louis County prosecutor not to seek an independent investigation after white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot black teenager Michael Brown was widely criticized and fueled violent protests.
“Absolutely, we did not want another Ferguson,” East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore told a newspaper reporter on Wednesday. “Baton Rouge is not Ferguson; we have a completely different history.”
Police said they were called to the convenience store after an anonymous caller complained that a man fitting Sterling’s description had threatened them with a handgun.
At a news conference Wednesday, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie said that Sterling was armed but that questions remain about what prompted the initial scuffle and shooting.
“Like you, there is a lot that we do not understand,” Dabadie told reporters. “And at this point, like you, I am demanding answers.”
The officers, identified Wednesday as Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, have been placed on paid leave. Salamoni, 28, is a third-generation Baton Rouge officer, while Lake, 29, was a former all-state defensive lineman at a Baptist high school in the capital city, according to local news archives. Authorities have declined to say whether one or both fired their weapons or how many times.
A 48-second cellphone video captured by a bystander outside the store shows two officers shouting “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!” and shooting Sterling with a stun gun before tackling him.
The video, which circulated widely on social media amid a protest over the shooting death, shows the officers wrestling with Sterling and trying to pin him to the ground. During the scuffle one of the officers yells, “He’s got a gun! Gun,” a moment before the other officer draws his weapon and shoots Sterling.
The bystander’s cellphone video doesn’t show all the shots being fired, but the store owner, Abdullah Muflahi, told the Baton Rouge Advocate that he witnessed four to six shots and that Sterling never reached for his gun. Police have not confirmed his version of events.
The store owner said Sterling was his friend, and only recently began carrying a weapon because he feared being mugged.
According to Muflahi, one of the officers retrieved a pistol from Sterling’s shorts pocket as he lay dying. Police have not confirmed Muflahi’s version of events.
But his account appears to be supported by a second video of the shooting that emerged Wednesday afternoon. The cellphone video, first published by the Advocate, is recorded from a different angle but also shows the officers wrestling with the suspect and one of them shouting that Sterling has a gun.
“Hey, bro, you f*** with me, I swear to God…” one of the officers appears to yell a second or two before multiple shots are fired.
Near the end of the video, one of the officers appears to bend over Sterling and reach toward the suspect’s shorts. Joel Porter, a Baton Rouge attorney representing the store owner, told the Advocate that Muflahi took the second video, which has now been turned over to the FBI.
Warning: Video contains graphic content
“I have very serious concerns,” Gov. Edwards said of what he saw on the first witness video.
According to public records, Sterling faced multiple charges in 2008 and 2009, including aggravated assault, drug possession, resisting arrest and weapons possession. He had also been a registered sex offender since 2000 after being convicted of having consensual intercourse with a juvenile, state records reveal.
At the police news conference, Dabadie rejected calls by some citizens for him to step down.
“I’m not resigning,” Dabadie said. “I’m not retiring.”
DOJ investigators will look into whether Salamoni and Lake willfully violated Sterling’s civil rights through the use of unreasonable or excessive force.
Similar investigations were launched in recent years following the police-related deaths of Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner in New York; and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.
The officers gave statements to police Tuesday afternoon, District Attorney Moore told the Advocate. Both “believe they were completely justified in using deadly force,” he said.
Lake, who has been on the force for three years, was on administrative leave at least once before. In December 2014, he was one of six Baton Rouge officers involved in a shootout with a gun-wielding suspect, according to archival news accounts. The suspect, who survived his injuries, was charged with leading police on a chase and firing at officers.
The Baton Rouge chief honored both officers in 2015, according to the department’s Facebook page. Salamoni, an officer for four years, was given a lifesaving award, and Lake received a certificate of commendation. Salamoni is the son of Capt. Noel Salamoni, who commands the Baton Rouge department’s special operations division. His mother, Melissa Salamoni, is a retired Baton Rouge police captain.
Salamoni, a construction worker before following in his parent’s footsteps, told the local newspaper in 2013 that he enjoys police work, especially chasing suspects.
“It’s a fun job,” said Salamoni, who is married to an ambulance emergency medical technician.
(This story has been updated since it was originally published.)