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A slap in the face from the Justice Dept.?

By Rhodesia Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: May 10, 2017 - 10:56:31 AM

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No federal charges for cops in shooting death of Alton Sterling

Alton Sterling

NEW ORLEANS—The announcement earlier this month by the Department of Justice to not bring federal charges against the two White Baton Rouge police officers for the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge proved to be just another slap in the face from the strong arm of the law, argued residents and local activists.

The killing of Mr. Sterling, a Black man, occurred last July and was captured on cell phone video. 

Cameron Sterling speaks during press conference, July 13, 2016. Cameron Sterling is the 15-year-old son of Alton Sterling, a Black man who was shot and killed by White police officers outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photos: MGN Online

“Woulda coulda shoulda,” seems to be the idiom echoed from authorities in cases involving law enforcement killings of unarmed Black men.

Community activist Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed says that the community is very disappointed because they had their hopes and prayers up.  “Personally, I wasn’t disappointed because I didn’t expect them to do anything different.  Looking at the past, the evidence hasn’t mattered in any case, such as the Eric Garner case or Tamir Rice.  We had video footage with them as well and no charges had been brought against any of those individuals. So, I don’t think it’s so much about having evidence, I just think that we are dealing with Satan as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us,” he continued.

Baton Rouge Acting U.S. Attorney General Corey Amundson announced at the May 3 press conference held at the federal courthouse in the city that there was insufficient evidence to charge officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, II. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear that under his direction the Justice Department will pursue a “law and order” approach and support law enforcement agencies when it comes to policing.

Attorney Amundson explained that prosecutors had to establish beyond reasonable doubt that a law enforcement officer acted willfully to deprive an individual of a federally protected right. However, the Sterling family, along with their attorneys, were disturbed after discovering in the family’s private meeting with members of the Dept. of Justice that Off. Salamoni was seen on the Triple S convenience store surveillance camera, where Mr. Sterling was killed, pointing a gun at Mr. Sterling’s head and threatening to kill him.  

Baton Rouge Councilmember-At-Large and family spokesperson Jason Williams said that he understands the complexities of the law itself, but as a lawyer he disagrees with the Justice Department’s decision. He argued that Off. Salamoni had ill-intent.

“Normally, you hear the prosecution say, ‘we don’t know what’s in that person’s heart, we don’t know what was in their mind, we don’t know what they were intending to do? However, we do know that this officer said that he would shoot Alton and we know in less than a minute and a half, Alton is dead by that officer’s very same gun.  I think his intentions were very clear,” Councilman Williams explained in a phone interview with The Final Call.

Film stills of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man, when he was shot to death as he lay on the ground with two Baton Rouge police officers on top of him, July 5, 2016.

Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome acknowledged the family and community’s disappointment in the decision at a press conference with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and stated, “This decision by the Justice Dept. to not file charges does not mean the police officers acted appropriately. It means there was not sufficient evidence according to what we heard from the Dept. of Justice.”

In many cases of police involved shootings of civilians, the results are similar.  Press conferences are held and the powers that be usually agree that police officers could’ve handled things differently or even made better choices that could’ve prevented loss of life, but they are still absolved from committing any crime.  

According to data provided to The Huffington Post by Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, police are hardly ever convicted of murder or manslaughter in fatal on-duty shootings. Mr. Stinson noted that juries and judges seem reluctant to second-guess the split-second life or death decisions of police officers in violent street encounters during their job and will give the benefit of every doubt to an officer on trial in these cases. 

“If all a police officer had to do is say, ‘I felt threatened and you have to believe me, judge,’ there would never be a prosecution in these cases,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen who argued why the Jeronimo Yanez case should go to trial. He is the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile in Minnesota a day after the Alton Sterling shooting. 

Mr. Castile’s death gained national attention after his girlfriend, who was in the car with him at the time of the shooting, livestreamed the ordeal on Facebook. Officer Yanez faces one count of second-degree manslaughter and two felony-counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. His trial starts May 30.  

Protests at the location of the Alton Sterling shooting in Baton Rouge, July 6, 2016.

Nation of Islam Student Minister Nuri Muhammad of Indianapolis, Ind. with Alton Sterling’s family in front of the mural by Baton Rouge artist Joseph Hines, and a makeshift memorial created by loved ones. Student Min. Nuri Muhammad participated in a recent community event organized by the Baton Rouge Justice or Else coalition to honor the life of Alton Sterling prior to the ruling by the Justice Department to not bring charges against the officers who shot and killed him.

Unfortunately, the bar for charging police officers with federal civil rights violations is extremely high, especially since law enforcement officers are given leeway for using deadly physical force if they reasonably feel their lives are in danger.   

Attorney Amundson reiterated that very point in his announcement to the public of the DOJ’s findings in Mr. Sterling’s case. “It’s not enough to show that an officer acted recklessly or with negligence or by mistake, exercised bad judgement, used bad tactics, or even that the officer escalated the situation when he could have de-escalated,” he said.  

The killings of Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile sparked protests locally and nationwide.

Even after receiving the news of the DOJ’s decision, some community members are still feeling hopeful about the future.  Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, expressed her disappointment that once more police officers have not been held accountable for their actions by federal authorities for killing a Black man.

“Apparently, Mr. Sterling was armed, but he wasn’t hurting anyone and he certainly didn’t need to be killed,” she said. “I watched the press conference and the U.S. Attorney when he gave his speech. He made it pretty clear that he thinks that there were some serious errors made by the Baton Rouge Police Dept.,” said Ms. Esman.

“They didn’t feel for whatever reason those (errors) rose to a level of warranting criminal charges, but he was pretty clear that he thinks that the BRPD did not do things as well as they should have.  So that’s encouraging that there may be some other accountability down the line,” she added.

“Moving forward,” said Councilman Williams, “the DOJ is supposed to turn their entire file; all the videos and statements that have been compiled, over to the state attorney general. I believe that the Attorney General, who is the top prosecutor for the state, has a duty and an obligation to bring a prosecution against at least the officer who fired his weapon into Alton Sterling and drew his weapon in the first seconds.” 

However, there are many residents who are not optimistic any meaningful changes will take place. Some protesters and supporters of the Sterling family have expressed feelings of doubt and are pessimistic about the outcome of these cases and some have taken to social media to express their concerns and frustrations over Black lives being taken and no one being held accountable.  One comment read, “They keep telling us to be peaceful, and to conduct ourselves in a peaceful manner, but did Alton die peacefully. No!  He died with 6 bullets pumped into him at close blank range.  I don’t know anyone who can know that and be in a peaceful mood.”

A demonstrator protesting the death of Alton Sterling is detained by the Baton Rouge police in Louisiana, July 9, 2016.

Members of the New Black Panther Party gathered May 6 outside of Baton Rouge Police Headquarters to protest the death of Alton Sterling and the DOJ’s decision.  They carried megaphones and shouted, “Black Power.” The protest was peaceful, but the group made their presence known.

 “I just don’t see anything good coming from this. I think that we as a people must have a stronger longevity when it comes down to protesting and holding them accountable for the world to see. That’s what we’re failing at right now,” said Mr. “Silky Slim” Reed.

Student Minister Abdul Rashid Muhammad of the Nation of Islam in Baton Rouge said he knew just based on past police killings that there wouldn’t be a just decision made. He has dedicated his time to promoting a Selective Buying Campaign as a way of “redistributing the pain,” a way to boycott corporate businesses and promote Black-owned businesses in a sustainable way. The local Justice or Else coalition was formed as a result of the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March on October 15, 2015 called by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.

In Baton Rouge, coalition members have been meeting every Wednesday night at Muhammad Mosque No. 65. “The guidance we are giving and the direction we are taking is that we want everyone to use their social media to publicize the Selective Buying Campaign and the economic boycott and pass it on to their friends because we want it to go viral,” said Student Min. Muhammad.

Youth representative of the Nation of Islam in Baton Rouge, Rashad Ali Muhammad, aided in coordinating a cash mob, Saturday, May 6, where supporters, organizers, and community leaders joined in to collectively support a business.

Chicken Shack was the Black-owned business that they decided to support, while boycotting Popeyes and Kentucky Fried Chicken. “The Justice or Else coalition will continue to support Black-owned businesses every weekend,” said Rashad Muhammad.

“We are also asking Black people to continue to boycott the Mall of Louisiana, which started last July when Alton Sterling was killed.  We will continue sustainable boycotts until we receive justice.”