Baton Rouge police chief Carl Dabadie, Jr. speaks at a news conference about the shooting of Alton Sterling. (Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP)
Early on Tuesday morning, two police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, responded to a 911 call about a man with a gun in front of a convenience store. When the cops arrived at the scene, they confronted 37-year-old Alton Sterling, who was selling CDs and DVDs in front of the store.What happened next was captured on grainy cellphone video. The officers grabbed Sterling, threw him on the hood of a parked car, then pinned him to the ground. In the video footage, someone can be heard yelling, "He's got a gun! Gun!" Moments later, a gunshot rings out. After the camera pulls away, several other shots are heard. Autopsy results later showed that Sterling died of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back.
VICE News sifted through five years of Baton Rouge news reports and found that Sterling was at least the sixth person killed by police in the area since 2011. All of the other incidents, with the exception of one that is still under investigation, were found by local authorities to be justified. At the request of Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, the Department of Justice will lead a civil rights probe into Sterling's death."I have very serious concerns. The video is disturbing, to say the least," the governor said at a press conference on Wednesday, adding that the US Attorney's office in Baton Rouge, the FBI, and state police also will be involved in the investigation.
While Sterling's shooting — along with another deadly police shooting in Minneapolis on Wednesday night — attracted national attention largely because it was captured on video, a February officer-involved shooting in Baton Rouge occurred away from any cell phone cameras and attracted far less attention.According to local news reports, police received a call saying 48-year-old Travis Stevenson had entered his girlfriend's apartment and pepper-sprayed her and her child. When authorities reached him by phone, he said he was planning to kill himself by jumping off a bridge into the Mississippi River. Police found him parked outside an apartment complex and used their vehicles to box him in so that he could not drive away. Stevenson allegedly tried to back into a police car, and officers reportedly broke his window and tried to pull him out before firing about 20 rounds. Louisiana State Police investigated the incident and referred the case to prosecutors in May; a decision on how to proceed is still pending.
Three other recent shootings by police in Baton Rouge involved suspects who either allegedly refused to drop weapons, pointed guns at cops, or opened fire. The last incident involving an unarmed man occurred on July 28, 2013, when police shot 28-year-old Tyris Wilkerson shortly after midnight on his birthday. Police reportedly tried to pull Wilkerson over, but he refused to stop, driving his SUV toward officers. The cops fired about six shots that passed through Wilkerson's windshield and passenger-side window as he sped past. A Baton Rouge grand jury declined to indict the officer responsible for Wilkerson's death.In May, East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney Hillar C. Moore III promised greater transparency when handling police shootings. Cops, typically the Louisiana State Police, will still be tasked with investigating their fellow cops, but Moore said prosecutors will "take a more active role" in the cases and provide reports to the public detailing the justification for not filing charges.The Baton Rouge Police Department doesn't yet equip all of its officers with body cameras. About 100 officers were outfitted with cameras as part of a pilot program, but the department had to switch brands earlier this year after officers reported technical glitches and difficulties keeping the cameras attached to their uniforms.In Sterling's case, the video that brought the incident to light and sparked protests across the city was recorded by a bystander. A second bystander video has since surfaced that shows the immediate aftermath of the shooting, with Sterling lying bloodied on the ground as an officer lies beside him, gun pointed at Sterling. Baton Rouge Police chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said Sterling was carrying a gun, and the second video appears to show an officer remove something from Sterling's pocket.
The convenience store's owner has said the incident was also recorded by surveillance cameras, and a Baton Rouge police official said the officers involved — Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II — were wearing body cameras that recorded the encounter. Police have so far declined to release that footage.According to data on police shootings compiled by the Guardian and Washington Post, Louisiana has the 10th highest per capita rate of fatal police shootings compared to other states and Washington, DC. Sterling was the 10th person killed by police in the state so far this year. Seven of the victims were black; of those, two had guns. It's unclear whether or not the victims were armed in the other five shootings.Last year, according to the two databases, Louisiana police killed 27 people, and a disproportionate number of the deceased were black. The state's population is about 32 percent African-American, but they accounted for roughly 55 percent of the people killed in officer-involved shootings.Adam Hamze contributed reporting.Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton