FBI and Justice Department's Civil Rights Division Take Over Alton Sterling Shooting Investigation from Baton Rouge PD
Saying they are striving for transparency, city and state officials on Wednesday announced the federal government would take the lead in investigating the controversial shooting death of a man in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, earlier this week.
Meanwhile, the family of 37-year-old Alton Sterling, killed by police early Tuesday, tells PEOPLE the officers “are murderers, that’s what they are” – a charge echoed by one local lawmaker.
Authorities have said that Sterling was killed after two uniformed officers responded about 12:30 a.m. local time to an anonymous call from a local food mart about a black man in a red sweatshirt who had allegedly threatened someone with a gun.
“An altercation between Sterling and the officers ensued,” according to an earlier statement from Baton Rouge police. “Sterling was shot during the altercation and died at the scene.”
The officers were identified Wednesday as Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni, three- and four-year veterans of the department, respectively. Both have been placed on leave pending the outcome of the investigations. It was not immediately clear if both officers fired at Sterling.
A 48-second long video taken by a witness – which circulated widely online in the immediate aftermath of Sterling’s death – shows Lake and Salmoni telling Sterling to get on the ground outside the convenience store.
One officer quickly tackles him to the ground, after Sterling has apparently been hit with a stun gun, according to the video. As the two officers pin Sterling in place, one of the officers yells, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” before firing his weapon at Sterling. It is not clear from the video if Sterling was able to move while being held down by police, or what movements he made if so.
Eyewitness Abdullah Muflahi, the convenience store owner, told CNN that after the shooting he saw police remove a gun from Sterling’s pocket. He said he did not see Sterling in an altercation with anyone that night before police arrived.
Speaking Wednesday morning, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division would assume investigation of the shooting, assisted by the FBI.
Regarding the footage, Edwards said, “I have very serious concerns. The video is disturbing to say the least.”
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Preliminary findings show Sterling had “multiple” gunshot wounds to the chest and back, according to the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William Clark, who declined to provide more detail.
The newly opened civil rights investigation into Sterling’s death was confirmed to PEOPLE in a DOJ statement, which said the department is also assisted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and “will collect all available facts and evidence and conduct a fair, thorough and impartial investigation.”
At a news conference later Wednesday, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie said his department had already turned over “the entire case” to the Attorney’s Office and the FBI.
“Like you, there is a lot that we do not understand,” he said, adding, “Like you, I am demanding answers.”
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore, III, said in a statement issued Wednesday that “he will receive the results of all investigations, whether federal or state, and will reserve all state prosecution decisions until such time as the results of all investigations are known.”
Moore said later that Lake and Salmoni “believe they were completely justified in using deadly force,” according to reporter Maya Lau.
But all officials who spoke Wednesday emphasized two things: That protests must be peaceful, and that the community is feeling a deep pain.
“Early yesterday morning, we experienced a horrible tragedy,” Dabadie said. “A life was lost.”
‘The Eyes of the Nation Are Now on Us’
State Rep. Edward “Ted” James tells PEOPLE he is “reassured” by the swift response from officials in handing off the shooting investigation to federal authorities.
James, whose legislative district is near the scene of the shooting and who grew up on the same street as the convenience store, says, “We have to reassure folks that we can heal from this.”
He says, “We have had very good relationships with law enforcement officials in our community” and that Sterling’s death is “not an indictment of our entire police force.” But he says Sterling’s death was absolutely alleged “murder” – which should end with nothing less than the arrest and prosecution of Lake and Salmoni.
James says he could only “stomach” watching video of the shooting once, and as a lifelong Baton Rouge resident he says he was disappointed that the controversial shootings that have convulsed so many other parts of the nation have made their way to his home.
“I’ve probably been quoted 10 times saying, ‘This won’t happen in Baton Rouge,’ ” he says.
“Here [in the video] we have a clear indication, a clear scene, of what happened, and I think the powers that be need to move,” James says.
But, just as the Sterling family has asked, James also says there must be peaceful protests and demonstrations, as the community pushes leaders and law enforcement for answers into the shooting.
“The eyes of the nation are now on us,” he says.
“Our city is better than this, our city is not divided and we have to honor [Sterling] by maintaining some civility.”
The Sterling Family Speaks Out
Veda Washington, Sterling’s oldest aunt, tells PEOPLE that when she first found out about Sterling’s death, “I screamed because I knew this shouldn’t have happened.”
“The police are supposed to protect and serve,” she says, adding, “They harassed him and they murdered him.”
Washington says she does not believe that Sterling was armed when he was shot. She tells PEOPLE, “You would never get a bad report about Alton from anybody because he was a gentle giant.”
Like city and state officials, Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s oldest son, also spoke at a press conference Wednesday. “As this video has been shared across the world, you will see with your own eyes how he was handled unjustly and killed without regards for the lives that he helped raise,” she said.
Next to her, 15-year-old Cameron Sterling sobbed.
• With reporting by CHRIS HARRIS