Another ‘death by cop’

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DOJ to investigate Baton Rouge killing

BY JAWEED KALEEM AND
MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE
LOS ANGELES TIMES / TNS

BATON ROUGE, LA. – The fatal police shooting of an African-American man hawking CDs in front of a convenience store has once again reignited the nation’s long-running debate over race, police and the use of force.

Alton Sterling, shot dead at the age of 37, was the father of five children. (COURTESY OF FACEBOOK)
Alton Sterling, shot dead at the age of 37, was the father of five children.
(COURTESY OF FACEBOOK)

The shooting by two White police officers – as 37-year-old Alton Sterling was apparently pinned to the ground – quickly sent angry protesters into the streets of the Louisiana capital and prompted the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday to take the lead in the investigation to determine what happened.

“Like you, there is a lot that we do not understand, and at this point, like you, I am demanding answers,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said at a news conference a day after Tuesday’s shooting, promising a “transparent and independent investigation” and calling for protesters to remain peaceful.

Phone video
Sterling’s violent death played out on a cellphone video shot by a bystander and quickly reverberated across the country, evoking images of earlier deaths at the hands of police killings that sparked protests in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and Cleveland – cities that have become geographic waypoints in an evolving national drama over the policing of African-American communities.

Activists compared the shooting to the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who was suspected of illegally selling cigarettes and died in the summer of 2014 after a police officer put him in a chokehold.

Hundreds of angry but nonviolent demonstrators converged on the scene of the shooting on Tuesday night. Protests continued at City Hall on Wednesday.

Gun found
Two officers were reportedly responding to an anonymous 911 tip that Sterling had made a threat with a gun in front of the convenience store where the incident occurred; the cellphone video taken by the bystander suggested that officers found a weapon in Sterling’s pocket, though there was no sign that he had touched it.

The incident began on a hot, muggy morning in a poor neighborhood of Baton Rouge on Tuesday as Sterling was selling his stock of CDs in front of the Triple S Food Mart, something he had done on and off for seven years, especially since moving into a nearby halfway house.

In the video shot by a local group that monitors police, the two White officers who responded to the scene shout at Sterling to get on the ground and quickly tackle him. After he is pinned down, someone is heard yelling: “He’s got a gun! Gun!” and, in a matter of seconds, gunshots are heard.

In a second video taken from another angle, Sterling’s chest can be seen bleeding before an officer removes an unidentifiable object from his pocket.

While the national debate over police shootings has prompted cities across the country to require officers to wear body cameras – including those in Baton Rouge – in this case the cameras being worn by both officers became dislodged in the scuffle, though they apparently continued to operate, police said.

No gun
Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the convenience store, said Sterling did not have a gun in his hand when the police approached him, but said he saw officers take one out of Sterling’s pocket after the shooting. Muflahi released his own video of the altercation, which doesn’t appear to show Sterling holding a gun.

Muflahi said he had known Sterling since opening the store seven years ago. He called him “Big Boy,” allowed him to sell his CDs in the parking lot and joked with him when they passed. Sterling recently had begun carrying a handgun, he said.

Louisiana is an open-carry state, where a person who is at least 17 can legally have a gun on his or her body without a permit. But family members said Sterling would have been prohibited from carrying a gun because he was on probation.

Muflahi said when he emerged from the store to film police approaching, he did not see the officers ask Sterling about the gun before tackling him.

No response
Muflahi heard Sterling ask, “What did I do wrong?” He said police did not respond.

“They were throwing him on top of the car, tasered him,” Muflahi said. “Then they tackled him on another vehicle. They got on top of him, one of the officers screamed ‘Gun!’ Then there were six shots.”

That’s when Muflahi said he saw one of the officers reach into Sterling’s pocket to extract a dark-colored handgun.

Sterling died from multiple gunshot wounds to his chest and back, according to East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William Clark. His death was ruled a homicide.

Local decision
Although the federal government is leading the investigation, the decision of whether to file state murder charges will likely rest with a local prosecutor – and possibly with a local grand jury.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said in a statement that he would wait until all investigations were complete before making a decision on whether to proceed with a criminal case.

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