BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The investigation of a deadly police shooting that inflamed racial tensions in Louisiana’s capital city has ended without criminal charges against two white officers who confronted a black man outside a convenience store two summers ago.
But experts in police tactics think the bloodshed could have been avoided if the Baton Rouge officers had done more to defuse the encounter with Alton Sterling. They say poor police tactics and techniques may have aggravated the volatile confrontation, which lasted less than 90 seconds.
Sterling’s death fits a tragic pattern of “utterly preventable” police shootings and reinforces an urgent need for sweeping cultural changes in law enforcement training and procedures, said former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper, author of the 2016 book “Protect And Serve: How To Fix America’s Police.” The fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Sacramento, California, last week appears to be the latest example of the persistent problem, he added.
“These cops in Baton Rouge, in Sacramento, everywhere, are doing what they’ve been taught to do. Most of these controversial shootings are the result of conditioning and training,” Stamper said.
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Federal authorities consulted two independent experts who concluded the Baton Rouge officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, employed poor tactics. One of them said “tactical problems” may have escalated the situation. However, those use-of-force experts ultimately concluded that the officers used “reasonable” force against Sterling, according to a report released Tuesday by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Landry ruled out charges against the two officers nearly 11 months after the U.S. Justice Department announced neither officer would be charged with federal crimes. Now that the criminal investigations are over, Baton Rouge’s police chief plans to decide by Friday whether to discipline Salamoni or Lake for their actions in the early morning hours of July 5, 2016.
Charles Key Sr., one of the experts consulted by the Justice Department, concluded the officers’ actions created tactical problems that may have escalated the threat. Key told federal investigators that the officers should have engaged Sterling at gunpoint “from a position of cover” instead of initially approaching him up close.
“Tactically, the officers didn’t handle it very well,” Key said during a telephone interview this week. “Their tactics put them at risk.”
Stamper said too many officers are trained to think they can’t back down from a fight and consider survival first, instead of safety.
“It’s just critical that police officers start with the sanctity of human life,” he said.
Salamoni shot Sterling six times during a struggle outside the store where the 37-year-old black man was selling homemade CDs. Lake helped wrestle Sterling to the ground, but he didn’t fire his gun.
The officers recovered a loaded revolver from Sterling’s pocket. As a convicted felon, Sterling could not legally carry a gun.
Two cellphone videos of the shooting quickly spread on social media, prompting large protests. Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said he will release other videos of the incident, including footage from the officers’ body cameras and the store’s surveillance camera, after he makes a disciplinary decision.
Video footage shows Sterling threatening someone with a firearm outside the Triple S Food Mart before the officers responded to a report of a man with a gun outside the store, according to Landry’s report.
The officers told Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car and struggled with him when he didn’t comply, the report said. Salamoni drew his weapon and, using expletives, threatened to shoot him in the head if he didn’t stop resisting, the report added.
Kenneth Sanders, the other expert consulted by the Justice Department, concluded Salamoni deserves to be disciplined for pointing his gun at Sterling’s head and using profane language. Sanders also concluded that the officers incorrectly performed a “stop and frisk” of Sterling because Salamoni had Lake in the line of sight of his gun while he was covering his partner with his weapon.
Lake shocked Sterling with a stun gun twice before the officers wrestled him to the ground, investigators said. Salamoni yelled that Sterling was reaching for a gun in his pocket before shooting him three times, and then fired three more shots into Sterling’s back when he began to sit up and move, state and federal authorities said.
Key said the officers’ language may have “exacerbated the situation.” He also concluded that tackling Sterling was the “dumbest” thing Salamoni did during the encounter because he exposed himself and left Lake with nothing but a stun gun to react, according to Landry’s report.
Paul, who was sworn in as police chief in January, wouldn’t comment Tuesday on the experts’ findings. Paul and three deputy chiefs will preside over a disciplinary hearing before he imposes any punishment.
“We will look at decisions that were made during the incident and we will apply that behavior to our policies and procedures,” he said.
Salamoni’s attorney, John McLindon, said he expects the officer to be fired. He called it “grossly unfair” that a disciplinary hearing is planned less than a week after the criminal investigation’s end. Lake’s lawyer, Kyle Kershaw, said his client’s actions complied with police procedure.