In just 90 seconds, Alton Sterling was dead, with three police bullets in his chest and three more in his back.
From the time the officers barked their first orders to the crackle of their final gunshot— and Sterling’s last breath — a minute and a half had gone by. Each second of the fatal encounter was captured on video for the world, and Sterling’s family, to cringe at.
In the 10 months since his death, Sterling’s name has been added to the long list of black men whose lives have been taken under questionable circumstances by law enforcement. Fiery protests have filled the streets. Politicians have invoked his name while pushing for police reform. And the outpouring of support and love for his family from well-wishers across the country has at times overwhelmed them.
But what they’ve really wanted, prayed and fought for, is something more elusive— justice.
The Justice Department Wednesday announced that it would not be filing federal civil rights charges against the two Baton Rouge, La. officers involved in Sterling’s death, a disappointment for his family, but not one that was totally unexpected.
The standard to bring federal civil rights charges is among the highest in our legal system. It takes more than showing that an officer made a mistake, acted negligently or even exercised bad judgment. Prosecutors have to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer acted “willfully to deprive an individual of a federally protected right” and prove that “the use of force was objectively unreasonable based on all of the surrounding circumstances,” the DOJ noted in its statement on why it wouldn’t be bringing charges against the officers involved in Sterling’s death.
But critics of the DOJ’s decision say a high legal bar isn’t the only reason why they had little faith that justice, at least in terms of the federal case, would prevail. The Justice Department’s handling of this case is seen by some as an early indication of how the agency, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will handle cases that involved alleged police abuse or misconduct.
Sessions has repeatedly indicated that his DOJ will depart from the prior administration’s aggressive inquiry into suspected systemic police misconduct. Sessions has ordered a review of all current federal agreements with local law enforcement agencies that were signed under former President Barack Obama's administration aimed at reforming troubled departments. Just last month, Sessions said that the so-called consent decrees and investigations “can reduce morale of the police officers.”
Long-troubled departments with deeply documented histories and patterns of racially biased policing, abuse and in some cases, even torture, have recently come under such consent decrees and investigations. Those departments include departments in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo.
Sessions has called the findings of an investigation into the Chicago PD that found widespread abuses, “anecdotal.” And he has attempted to halt the implementation of Baltimore’s agreement in the 11th hour, despite local leaders, including the mayor and police chief, wanting to stick with the process. A federal judge has blocked Sessions attempt to undermine Baltimore’s agreement.
Federal involvement in local cases involving police killings is rare and has been before the incoming administration came into power. Under President Barack Obama and Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, such cases shook America, and only the most explosive garnered the attention of federal investigators. Rarer still were charges brought against officers who have killed residents.
But the shift in tone from the prior administration to the current one has been stark, with President Donald Trump campaigning on a platform of law and order. The shift in tone has been even more so in the stance projected by the Attorney General.
“The difference between the Sessions administration and prior administrations, under Obama or whoever else, is the communication of the message. There’s no shame to his game about how he feels about policing and how they should be protected,” said Marquez Claxton, a retired NYPD detective and director of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance. “It’s not a smoke signal for him, he’s yelled it in everyone’s ear. 'You’re brave, you’re warriors.' His messaging is clear. He’s looking not only to communicate that, but he’s looking to undo whatever progress was made in the past. He’s looking to decimate the Civil Rights Division.”
Critics of the Justice Department’s handling of past police-involved killings have complained that the investigations dragged out and often came about only after sustained protests and political pressure.
“Now, take away their manpower and their focus and tell them that these types of cases are not a priority,” Claxton said. “Then you communicate to the police that, 'I got your back and I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and beyond.' You’re setting yourself up for disaster.”
Justice Department spokesman Mark Abueg responded to criticism that the Sessions-led DOJ was going to be soft on officers who violate people's rights by pointing to two recent cases involving either the misuse of lethal force or abuse by officers.
The first is the case of former North Charleston, S.C. police officer Michael Slager who on Tuesday pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges in the shooting death of Walter Scott.
The second is of three former law enforcement officials with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana who were sentenced on Wednesday. The trio had been convicted earlier along with seven others former officials for a litany of inmate abuses.
Both of those cases reached conclusions in the days prior to the DOJ's decision in the Sterling case.
In the latter, former Lt. Col. Gerald Savoy was sentenced to serve more than seven years in prison; Wesley Hayes, the former Warden of the Iberia Parish Jail, was sentenced to serve nearly three years; and Hayes’ brother Jesse, a former Assistant Warden at the jail, was sentenced to serve two years.
In a statement following the sentencing by a federal judge, FBI Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey S. Sallet of the New Orleans division said the FBI is "committed to aggressively investigating allegations of excessive force used by law enforcement officers” and “the civil rights of all persons must be protected as they are the bedrock of our society."
When Abueg was asked for a direct response to the accusations levied by critics, that the AG’s language could be perceived as a signal to law enforcement that the Justice Department won't be heavy-handed in dealing with impropriety by officers, he cordially declined further comment.
Chris Stewart, the Sterling family’s lawyer, said the road toward federal charges in this case was a steep one even if it were a different administration in power.
Stewart said that they’d been hopeful that the DOJ would charge the officers — triggerman Blane Salamoni and partner Howie Lake II — but history has shown that federal investigations are rare and charges against killer cops is even rarer.
“The DOJ rarely gets involved in these cases,” Stewart said of prior high profile cases of black men and boys killed by cops.
One recent exception is the Slager case, Stewart said. Stewart is also the lawyer for the family of Scott, shot and killed by Slager back in 2015. In that case, the former officer was captured on video firing eight shots into Scott’s back after he tried to flee a traffic stop.
“Thank God they got involved in the Slager case, but Slager was rare. That’s why it was such a big deal. That was a historic situation,” Stewart said.
Many viewed the Sterling case as the first real test of the new DOJ's willingness to hold police accountable in these sorts of highly-charged killings. But it was not actually the first controversial case in which Sessions’ DOJ has declined to bring charges in an officer-involved death.
Chase Sherman, a white Georgia man in the midst of a psychotic episode brought on by synthetic marijuana, died after Coweta County deputies stunned him numerous times with a stun gun while Sherman was handcuffed in the backseat of a rental car. The officers struggled to keep the frantic Sherman under control, and soon, an emergency medical technician arrived and helped pin him down.
Police bodycam footage captured the incident, in which Sherman could be heard at one point saying, “O.K. I’m dead, I’m dead,” and “I quit, I quit.”
Not long after, Sherman died at the scene.
Stewart is also Sherman's family's lawyer.
“That one I don’t understand. That one they just kind of flipped under the rails because that didn’t have the big media fuel,” Stewart said. Stewart said the Justice Department called him recently and delivered the news that no federal charges would be filed in Sherman’s death.
The lawyer said he’s been a vocal supporter of law enforcement but finds Sessions talk of low morale and anecdotal evidence nonsensical in light of very real abuses at the hands of police.
“They are talking like that’s some nationwide thing that every police department is being reviewed. That’s not true. There are countless police departments across the country and they’re not all under DOJ investigation. The ones that are under investigation needed to be under investigation. That whole mentality fuels this whole thing. ‘Oh, everybody is against the police’ when that’s just not true,” Steward said.
“The first step is acknowledging, in certain areas and in certain instances, that police officers do treat minorities differently. And if you can’t acknowledge that, that’s part of the problem. By acknowledging that you’re not saying that every officer is racist. You’re saying simply that this is happening. It’s craziness to me that everybody just wants to stay on their side. It’s impossible to do both in people’s minds, to support police officers and support victims of police brutality.”
The decision not to charge the officers in the Sterling case was a bit of a blow locally, where last summer thousands of people protested, calling for the officers’ arrest. In sometimes fiery clashes with police, about 160 people were arrested in three days of protests.
Heavy rainstorms on Wednesday, the day of the announcement, dampened any anger that otherwise might’ve manifested in continued protests. Outside of the Baton Rouge store where Sterling sold CDs and where he ultimately died, few of the regulars sat on milk crates or posted up on the store’s outside wall, where a huge mural of Sterling beams from the otherwise drab establishment. The colors are vibrant blues, red and gold, including Sterling’s toothy smile filled with gold caps.
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome called for peace and resoluteness. Community members pooled into churches as clergy urged faith and persistence. With the federal investigation closed the attention now shift to the State’s Attorney General’s office which will determine if the officers will be charged with state criminal charges.
“While the standards for federal charges are extremely high, standards under state law are broader and may be more easily applied to the facts of this case. The Sterling family deserves a thorough, transparent investigation by state officials,” Congressman Cedric Richmond, who represents Louisiana, said in a statement, lauding state Attorney General Jeff Landry's quick decision to pursue an investigation.
He praised the start of the state investigation but lamented the DOJ’s handling of its announcement in the case. A day before their official announcement, media began reporting leaks of the decision before federal authorities alerted Sterling’s family.
“I share the concerns of the Sterling family regarding the way they learned of DOJ's decision. There is no reason they should have read about the decision in the media with no direct contact from Justice officials for days,” he said. “We deserve better from the department and I look forward to engaging Justice officials, through the relevant oversight committees in Congress, to get to the bottom of this failure of leadership.”
In announcing its decision to not bring charges in Sterling’s death, the Justice Department laid out how and why it came to its conclusion. Federal agents and career prosecutors pored over evidence including interviews with sources, video footage from police vehicles and body-worn cameras on the responding officers. It looked over the personnel files of the officers and the department’s policies.
The DOJ presented the high legal standard to reach in order to bring federal civil rights charges against the officers, “one of the highest standards of intent imposed by law” which requires proof that the officer acted with the specific intent to do something the law forbids.
The department also presented some details that were known and some that weren’t. Before the physical confrontation between Sterling and the officers began, one of the officers put a gun to Sterling’s head. In an unreleased video of the first moments of the interaction between Sterling and the two officers, the officers order Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car.
When Sterling is slow to comply, “Officer Salamoni then pulled out his gun and pointed it at Sterling’s head.” Then Sterling put his hands on the hood, but when he later moves them, he’s first shot with a stun gun and then tackled by Salamoni. From the time Sterling is pinned to the ground to the time that he’s shot, just 30 seconds had passed.
But amid the small revelations, the DOJ kept some details undisclosed, which the department says were “particularly sensitive facts and evidence,” in order to protect the integrity of the state’s investigation.
Local leaders and layfolk alike have been buzzing for the last week as leaks and rumors led to speculation that there was some bombshell piece of evidence that could blow the top of the case. Much of that speculation pointed to unreleased audio and video of the encounter that could be used to incriminate officers Salamoni and Lake.
“The DOJ informed all of us that there is extra footage and audio and that they wanted to warn us that we’re going to find it extremely offensive because of the language used by officer Salamoni who in our opinion instigated the entire thing,” Stewart said. “Because at some point he puts the gun to Alton’s head and says ‘I’m going to kill you b---h, I’m going to shoot you in your m-----f---ing head,’ something like that.”
Stewart said he’s unsure when exactly the family will be able to view and listen to the unreleased evidence, since it has been turned over to the State’s Attorney General’s Office and won’t likely be made available until after their investigation is finished. The evidence could be extremely damning to the officer’s case, Stewart said.
“It’s a big deal because it show the mental state of the officer who pulled the trigger,” he said. “You tell someone, I’m going to kill you ‘bitch’ and then he does it.”
In the meantime, Sterling’s family, including his young children, are bracing for a possibly long road in search of justice. Plans are underway to file a multi-million dollar civil lawsuit in the coming weeks or month.
“We had a very good understanding that reaching the DOJ threshold is a lot tougher than the bar for state charges. The very, very positive thing that the family ended up getting some relief from, is that it’s not over. Just because the DOJ isn’t going to do anything, it’s now in the State AG’s hands,” Stewart said.
“That is great news. Now people just have to keep the pressure on and the focus on that he now has a job to do.”