Relatives of Alton Sterling say they’re frustrated and saddened by news reports that the Justice Department won’t prosecute two Baton Rouge, La., police officers who were involved in the man’s shooting death last summer.
Video footage of the killing showed the officers holding Sterling on the ground when he was shot, prompting protests and a federal inquiry.
In anticipation of a possible Justice Department announcement about the case, more than 100 people gathered Tuesday night at the Triple S Food Mart where Sterling was shot last July. But the federal agency has not announced its findings, and NPR hasn’t confirmed the reports that it won’t bring charges.
Sandra Sterling, the aunt who raised Alton Sterling after his mother died, told local TV station WBRZ that the apparent decision stings — particularly after she and her relatives had been assured it would be worth the wait to ensure justice was achieved.
“No, it’s not worth the wait, it’s not worth the wait,” Sterling told the station. “All of this was for nothing, but it just hurts so bad.”
News that no federal charges would be filed was first reported by The Washington Post Tuesday afternoon; ABC News later said it had also received word about the decision from federal sources.
Another of Sterling’s aunts, Veda Washington-Abusaleh, said she’s unhappy with the Justice Department for not clarifying its position in the face of the widespread reports.
“The lawyers called and said they have not made a decision,” Washington-Abusaleh said at last night’s rally, according to The Times-Picayune. “Ain’t that something? But the Washington Post called us here at [Baton Rouge area code] 225.”
She added, “We need closure, we need a conviction. We need justice.”
People on different sides of the issue had not been expecting the DOJ to file charges, Bryn Stole of local newspaper The Advocate tells NPR. “But,” he adds, “there were a lot of people who were really upset over the way it was handled, and the way it was leaked to the [Post].”
The way this process has unfolded has also riled local officials. Both Louisiana’s governor and Baton Rouge’s mayor said Tuesday that they haven’t been told of a decision.
“I am appalled that this news, whether true or false, has been disseminated without a formal decision being relayed to the Sterling family first,” Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said. “Also, no one in my office or the governor’s office has been notified by the U.S. Attorney’s office of a decision or timeline.”
As the reports of no charges spread — and no word has emerged from the Justice Department — Stole says that amid their disappointment, some of Sterling’s relatives are still “hoping that maybe these reports were incorrect.”
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry could still file state charges, but he has not launched an official investigation and hasn’t disclosed his plans.
Sterling, 37, was shot to death after police were called to a convenience store for a disturbance and a man who had reportedly made a threat with a gun. The intense scene that followed was captured on video from at least two vantage points, showing one of the officers who were holding Sterling down on the asphalt yelling, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” seconds before the shooting.
The owner of the Triple S store, Abdullah Muflahi, told The Advocate that the officers retrieved a gun from Sterling’s pocket — but, Muflahi said, he didn’t see Sterling’s hands go near his pockets during the struggle. Muflahi also said Sterling had been selling CDs outside his store for several years.
The two officers involved in the case have been identified as Blane Salamoni, a four-year veteran of the force, and Howie Lake II, a three-year veteran. They were placed on administrative leave after the shooting.
Unlike in other police shootings, local, state and federal authorities did not make parallel inquiries into Sterling’s killing. After Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie’s department carried out an initial investigation, he turned the entire case over to the FBI and U.S. attorneys. The local district attorney also left the case up to the Justice Department.
At last night’s vigil, Baton Rouge resident Kayla Washington told reporter Travis Lux of member station WWNO that she was there to support the family. Lux says she also told him the Sterling case has hung like a cloud over Baton Rouge.