DOJ Opens Civil Rights Investigation into Alton Sterling Shooting

Print Share on LinkedIn More

July 6, 2016; Washington Post

The Department of Justice announced on Wednesday that it was opening a civil rights investigation into the shooting of 37-year-old black man and father of five Alton Sterling by two white Baton Rouge police officers.

“The FBI’s New Orleans Division, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Louisiana have opened a civil rights investigation into the death of Alton Sterling,” said David Jacobs, the Justice Department spokesperson, in a statement. “The Justice Department will collect all available facts and evidence and conduct a fair, thorough and impartial investigation.” The local Baton Rouge police department is also investigating the shooting.

According to the coroner, initial results show Sterling died from multiple fatal gunshot wounds to the chest and back. A bystander video uploaded on Tuesday night, which ended up going viral, depicts two officers pulling their guns on Sterling outside a convenience store, tackling him to the ground, and then shooting him in the chest in a near-contact shot. (State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle told WAFB-TV that the officers were wearing body cameras, but they fell off during the struggle.)

According to reports, Sterling was armed with a gun, and police officers were responding to an anonymous complaint that Sterling had allegedly threatened someone with his gun while selling CDs. The graphic video shows only the end of their confrontation and part of the story. Moreover, the bystander, who is filming from another car, sometimes cuts away from the scene, though some of the audio remains.

“If you look at the video, it certainly speaks for itself,” said Edmond Jordan, an attorney representing Sterling’s family, during a news conference Wednesday. “Mr. Sterling was not reaching for a weapon. He looks like a man who is trying to get his head up, who is actually fighting for his life. A life that ended immediately thereafter, almost as if he knew what was about to happen.”

“The video is disturbing, to say the least,” said Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards.

Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the convenience store where the shooting took place and a witness, described the police as “aggressive” from the start of the interaction and said Sterling did not have his hands near his pockets or his gun out during the incident. According to Muflahi, the officers also initially used a Taser on Sterling, though that did not get him to the ground.

In Muflahi’s recollection of the event, both officers were “freaking out” after Sterling was fatally shot, and he heard one of the officer say, “Just leave him.” Both officers have been placed on administrative leave, as is routine after a shooting.

“God bless his soul. […] On both sides, it could have been handled differently,” Muflahi said to WAFB-TV.

Reaction to Sterling’s shooting was swift and critical, if a little weary over the death of another black man. The DOJ investigation was announced less than 24 hours after the shooting. Particularly given the existence of the video, outrage is in part directed at Sterling being shot after being seemingly immobilized.

“He had his hands up when the officer tackled him,” said Alton’s cousin, Elliott Sterling. “Even if he did have a gun [in his pocket], he couldn’t get it out with them holding him down like that.”

Michael McClanahan, president of the Baton Rouge NAACP, called on the local police chief to resign. “He must step down. We cannot have anybody who allows this type of action to take place.” The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has also said it will be investigating the shooting.

Protesters have, since Tuesday night, remained in front of Muflahi’s Baton Rouge convenience store. #AltonSterling has also been trending on Twitter as well.

—Shafaq Hasan