BATON ROUGE, La. — The U.S. Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Wednesday into the video-recorded police killing of a black man who authorities say had a gun as he wrestled with two white officers on the pavement outside a convenience store.
Alton Sterling, 37, was confronted by police and shot on Tuesday after an anonymous caller said he had threatened someone with a gun outside the store, where he was selling homemade CDs, authorities said.
In a cellphone video taken by a community activist and posted online, the two officers pinned Sterling to the ground, someone yelled, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” and gunfire erupted moments later.
At a news conference Wednesday, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said that Sterling was armed but that there are still questions about what happened.
“Like you, there is a lot that we do not understand. And at this point, like you, I am demanding answers,” Dabadie said, calling the shooting a “horrible tragedy.”
The officers, identified by the chief as Blane Salamoni, a four-year member of the department, and Howie Lake II, who has been on the force for three years, were placed on administrative leave, standard department procedure.
Authorities would not say whether one or both fired their weapons or how many times.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and the U.S. Justice Department announced the investigation by the department’s civil rights division.
“I have very serious concerns. The video is disturbing, to say the least,” Edwards said.
The shooting stirred anger in Baton Rouge, with hundreds protesting Tuesday night and demonstrations continuing Wednesday. Community leaders and Sterling’s family demanded a federal investigation.
“Mr. Sterling was not reaching for a weapon. He looks like a man that was actually fighting for his life,” said state Rep. Edmond Jordan, an attorney for Sterling’s family.
Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s teenage son, trembled as she read a statement outside City Hall, where a few dozen protesters and community leaders had gathered. Her son, Cameron, 15, broke down in tears and was led away as his mother spoke.
She described Sterling as “a man who simply tried to earn a living to take care of his children.
“The individuals involved in his murder took away a man with children who depended upon their daddy on a daily basis,” she said.
The police chief urged protesters to remain peaceful, and Mayor Kip Holden likewise sought to ease tensions, saying, “We have a wound right now, but we’ll be healing and making this city and parish whole again.”
Police said they have dash-cam video, bodycam video and store surveillance footage of the shooting that will be turned over to the Justice Department. But Lt. Jonny Dunnam said the bodycam footage may not be as good as investigators hoped for because the cameras became dislodged during the scuffle.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU, said if the body cameras became dislodged, there are “serious questions” that need to be asked.
“Is that because there was something wrong with the equipment? Is that because the officers were not trained in how to properly fasten them?” she said. “Right when they’re needed most is when two of them malfunction in the same way.”
The Justice Department will look into whether the officers willfully violated Sterling’s civil rights through the use of unreasonable or excessive force.
Similar investigations, which often take many months, were opened following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York.
Federal investigators must meet a high legal burden to bring a civil rights prosecution, establishing that an officer knowingly used unreasonable force under the circumstances and did not simply make a mistake or use poor judgment. Many federal probes conclude without criminal charges.
In the video, which appears to be shot from inside a nearby parked car, one of two officers outside the store can be seen tackling a man in a red shirt and wrestling him to the ground. Then the other officer helps hold the man down.
At one point someone can be heard saying, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” and then one officer on top of the man can be seen pulling his weapon from his holster.
After some shouting, what sounds like a gunshot can be heard and the camera pulls away. Then more shots can be heard. At one point, a person in the vehicle asks, “They shot him?” as a woman can be heard crying.
The store’s owner, Abdullah Muflahi, told The Advocate newspaper that Sterling was not holding a gun during the shooting but that he saw officers remove one from his pocket afterward.
Muflahi said an officer yelled “Gun!” during the scuffle and an officer then fired four to six shots into Sterling’s chest.
On Wednesday, when a pastor told the small crowd gathered that the protest should be peaceful, 45-year-old Sharon Alexander, her voice cracking, countered: “We don’t need peace. We need answers; we need justice.”
Alexander, who was there with her daughter and three other relatives, said later: “We sound like a broken record. It’s time for a change.”
Protesters and friends created a memorial to Sterling on the white folding tables and folding chair he had used to sell homemade music compilations on CDs.
“He never bothered nobody. He was just trying to make an honest dollar,” said Arthur Baines, who came by to pay his respects.
Mufleh Alatiyat, an employee of the store, said Sterling often gave away CDs or petty cash or bought food or drink for some people. “He was a very nice guy,” he said. “He helped a lot of people.”
The man who claimed to have shot the cellphone footage, Arthur Reed, said his company, Stop the Killing Inc., makes documentary-style videos about killings in Baton Rouge.
“We look at ourselves as being a service to the community,” Reed said.