By Jaweed Kaleem and Molly Hennessy-Fiske
The fatal police shooting of an African American man hawking CDs in front of a convenience store in this sweltering Southern city has once again reignited the nation's long-running debate over race, police and the use of force.
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.
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 that sparked protests in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and Cleveland -- cities which have become geographic waypoints in an evolving national drama over the policing of African American communities.
Warning: Video has graphic content
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, called Sterling's death "a tragedy."
"From Staten Island to Baltimore, Ferguson to Baton Rouge, too many African American families mourn the loss of a loved one from a police-involved incident," she said in a statement. "Something is profoundly wrong when so many Americans have reason to believe that our country doesn't consider them as precious as others because of the color of their skin."
Hundreds of angry but nonviolent demonstrators converged on the scene of the shooting, Triple S Food Mart, on Tuesday night, shouting, "Black lives matter" and "Hands up, don't shoot." Protests continued at City Hall on Wednesday morning, with mourners holding signs that read "Don't kill us."
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.
Sterling's son broke down crying and was led away as his mother, Quinyetta McMillon, described Sterling her son as a man "who simply tried to earn a living to take care of his children." A father of five, Sterling worked odd jobs as a cook and sold wares in front of the mini-mart, family members said.
"The individuals involved in his murder took away a man with children who depended upon their daddy on a daily basis," McMillon said.
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 a 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.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Dabadie rebuffed activists' calls for his resignation, though he called Sterling's death a "horrible tragedy." He said the department had turned over the investigation over to the U.S. attorney's office, and also had given federal officials custody of body and dashboard camera videos.
Dabadie identified the officers as Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake. Salamoni has been on the force for four years, Lake for three years. The officers have been placed on leave, and an investigation is "ongoing," the chief said.
"Like you, there is a lot that we do not understand, and at this point, like you, I am demanding answers," Dabadie said.
The shooting, in a city of 229,000 that is about 54% black, quickly rocketed through social media and caught the attention of national politicians and civil rights activists, including members of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson tweeted that the incident was a "legal lynching."
A key question in the investigation is whether Sterling was making threats with his gun, either before or during the altercation with police. Dispatch audio released Wednesday reported the threat Sterling had purportedly made, but the story is disputed.
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 of 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.
"He told me that he had it for protection," Muflahi said. "Friends of his that also sold CDs had been bothered." But Muflahi said when he emerged from the store and raised his cellphone to film police approaching, he did not see the officers ask Sterling about the gun before tackling him. 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. A toxicology report will take about 21 days, he said, and a final report will be released in two to three months. Sterling is the 558th person nationwide to be shot and killed by police in 2016, according to "The Counted," the Guardian newspaper's running account of fatal police shootings in America.
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. Over the last two years, just a handful of prosecutors and grand juries have criminally charged officers in high-profile shootings, usually citing a lack of sufficient evidence of wrongdoing and high legal standards that protect officers who say that their lives or others' lives were in danger.
East Baton Rouge Dist. Atty. 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, adding that it would likely take at least four weeks for investigators to complete their work.
"This hurts," Moore said of Sterling's death at a televised news conference with local police officials, adding that he was avoiding coming to "any judgment or conclusion" about what had happened.
The main legal question surrounding the investigation will be simple, according to Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola University of New Orleans Law School: "Was the force used by these officers necessary and reasonable given the totality of the circumstances?"
"Just like all of these police shooting cases, like all possible self-defense cases, it comes down to the necessity of using deadly force, and whether it was necessary will depend on all the facts that are still being developed," Ciolino said. He added that Moore "almost certainly won't make a decision on his own -- you can bank on him going to the grand jury for the charging decision."
Sterling family lawyer Edmond Jordan said the family was "certainly happy about the Department of Justice investigating" and called the shooting "unjustified." He said he was unsure whether Sterling carried a gun and that relatives he spoke to "were not aware that he had a gun."
Records show that Sterling had a long criminal record, including a conviction in 2000 for carnal knowledge of a juvenile, and previous guilty pleas to aggravated battery, damage to property and unauthorized entry, and domestic abuse battery.
McMillon said her son "should not be judged on his past."
"Alton sells CDs, and he was doing just that -- not bothering anyone, and had the consent of the store owners as well.
"I will not allow him to be swept in the dirt," she said.
The death has shocked friends and family members. Treveon Williams, 19, said he last saw Sterling a couple hours before the shooting hanging out in front of the store where they had previously passed countless hours; his mother, he said, had purchased some blues CDs from Sterling only that morning. Williams awoke to a text saying Sterling was dead.
He described Sterling as a serious fisherman who loved his sons. "Every time he had free time he'd have them with him," Williams said.
Williams, who is black, said he has been harassed by police in other parts of Baton Rouge. When he and his friends would get nervous seeing police approach the store, it was Sterling who would reassure them. "He would be like, 'Don't worry about them, they good," Williams said.
Later in the day, the convenience store owner released footage of the incident from his own cellphone, which appeared to clearly show one of the officers unholstering his weapon and pointing it, at close range, at Sterling's chest. Later, it shows Sterling with a gaping wound to his chest, waving a trembling arm in his apparent death throes.
Sterling's aunt, Sandra Sterling, collapsed in the store parking lot after watching it.
Paramedics led her away from the crowd of several hundred in the lot to the back of the building. There, she sat on the concrete, hands quivering as she began to wail.
"I'm so mad right now!" she cried, leaning into the paramedics, eyes closed. "Y'all don't know!"
Her niece, Sharida Sterling, said she was afraid to watch the second video.
"It's wrong what they did to him," she said. "That child didn't even fight back."
Later, a crowd spanning several blocks forced traffic to a crawl as preachers, gathered for a vigil, called for unity, justice and peace.
Someone had spray-painted a mural of a smiling Sterling on the storefront behind a makeshift memorial. Next door there was a painted figure with arms raised; Valencia Patterson, 34, was one of many who scrawled a message on the wall below.
"I hope justice be served," said Patterson, who is black. "I have a list of people that justice was never served. Even with cameras and videos, justice hasn't prevailed."
Kelly Boatner, 41, a sales associate who lives nearby, came to the vigil to honor her local "CD man" and other victims of police brutality.
"This is such a horrific situation that has gone on for many years, and you're tired of seeing the same thing happen over and over," she said.
Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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