Justice Department Awards Over $4.5 Million to State of Louisiana to Fund State Crisis Intervention Court Proceedings
Good morning. My name is Corey Amundson. I serve as the Acting United States Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana where I have been a career federal prosecutor for over 15 years.
I am here today with Robert Moossy, a 22-year career federal prosecutor who serves as the senior career official with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department; Tamera Kessler, a 28-year career federal prosecutor who serves as Chief of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division; Jeff Sallet, Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office and previously Chief of the FBI’s National Civil Rights Section; and Ron Reed, the supervisor of the FBI’s Civil Rights Squad in the New Orleans Field Office.
We are career public servants who have served over 70 years under multiple administrations.
Following the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling last July, and in response to requests by the community and state and local leaders, our offices commenced an extensive and thorough federal criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
This morning I want to discuss our investigation, the approach we took to our review of this tragic incident, as well as the decision and the reasons for it.
After an exhaustive almost year-long investigation, all of the prosecutors and agents involved in this matter have come to the unanimous conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to charge a federal crime.
A short while ago, we met with Mr. Sterling’s family. We expressed our condolences for the loss of their nephew, their father, and their children’s father. We also shared our findings and decision with them. We also informed Officers Salamoni and Lake, through their attorneys, of the decision.
We do not normally publicly discuss the declination of charges in a matter, particularly in a situation, like this, where a state investigation is anticipated following our decision. simply felt that making a public appearance was the right thing to do in a case that means so much, to so many. However, we must still be careful not to impede or jeopardize the integrity of the state investigation and decision process. To do that, this briefing will be limited to this statement. hope that the information provided in my statement, along with the detailed press release, will answer any questions you may have.
Our investigation focused on one question: Did either Officer Salamoni or Officer Lake violate federal criminal civil rights laws or any other federal criminal law in connection with their encounter with Mr. Sterling.
As explained in more detail in our press release, federal law makes it a crime for a law enforcement officer, acting willfully, to deprive an individual of their constitutional rights. To prove that a shooting, such as occurred here, violated Mr. Sterling’s rights under federal law, the government must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the officers’ use of force was objectively unreasonable based on the circumstances at the time.
The government would also have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the officers acted willfully, that is, that they acted with the specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is one of the highest legal standards in criminal law.
Under this standard, it is not enough to show that an officer acted recklessly or with negligence or by mistake, exercised bad judgment, used poor tactics, or even that he escalated the situation where he could have de-escalated it.
Federal prosecutors are only allowed to bring federal criminal charges if we believe we could establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. These rules apply to every federal criminal case and federal prosecutor in the country.
With this rule and the law in mind, we began our investigation the day following the shootings. My office, the Civil Rights Division, and the FBI assigned very experienced senior career prosecutors and agents who worked on this matter nearly full-time, through many nights, weekends, and holidays. We also enlisted support from literally dozens of additional team members, including personnel from the FBI lab in Quantico.
Our aim was to determine the facts as best we could through an exceedingly thorough and comprehensive investigation. We promised that when the investigation began and owed it to Mr. Sterling’s family, the officers involved in the shooting, the police department, and everyone else who has been touched by this tragedy.
One agent remarked that we would not only leave no stone unturned, but each time we turned over a stone, we would turn over whatever was underneath and keep digging. We did just that.
The team probed and questioned dozens of witnesses, from government employees to civilians. We obtained, reviewed, and enhanced numerous videos that captured all or part of the incident and the periods before and after, including cell-phone videos, store surveillance video, police vehicle video, and videos from body cameras. We examined how evidence was collected and analyzed, hired national use-of-force experts, and obtained and reviewed voluminous documents and records, including BRPD records, policies, training manual, personnel records and other documents.
We took nothing for granted. We followed any trail of available evidence that we thought had any possibility of shedding some light on the officers’ state of mind and intent at the time of the shooting. In addition to the shooting itself, we gathered evidence concerning the officers’ activity before and after the shooting to determine whether any of that activity violated any federal criminal laws, including criminal civil rights laws, as well as laws against making false statements and obstructing justice. Again, we assumed nothing.
Some of the additional investigative steps that we took added to the length of the investigation. But we believed it was most important to ensure that the investigation was complete and correct. Also, while understanding of the interest in the investigation, we firmly believed that premature public disclosures about the investigation would risk its accuracy and reliability. This was an unacceptable risk given our goal of ensuring the most accurate and complete results.
Let us now turn to the facts. It is important to note that the entire exchange between Mr. Sterling and the officers happened very quickly, with events happening in rapid succession. The entire encounter—from the moment the officers first approached Mr. Sterling, through the firing of the sixth and final shot—lasted less than 90 seconds.
Based on dispatch recordings, we know that, at approximately 12:30 a.m. on July 5, 2016, Officers Salamoni and Lake were told to respond to a report that an African American man wearing a red shirt and selling CDs had “pulled a pistol” on someone outside the Triple S Food Mart and had the gun in his pocket. It is reasonable to expect officers with this information to focus on eliminating any threat from a gun immediately upon their arrival.
The videos, which are disturbing, show that the officers arrived on the scene with an immediate goal of ensuring that Mr. Sterling’s hands were in control and not able to access a weapon. At first, they directed Mr. Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car. When he did not comply, the officers placed their hands on Mr. Sterling, who struggled with and resisted the officers. Officer Salamoni then pulled his gun and pointed it at Mr. Sterling’s head, prompting Mr. Sterling, who appears confused, to put his hands on the hood. Mr. Sterling’s size – 6 feet 3 inches tall and over 300 pounds – made it difficult for officers to control, much less handcuff, Mr. Sterling. After Mr. Sterling, still struggling, briefly attempted to move his hands from the hood, Officer Lake deployed his Taser on Mr. Sterling, who fell to his knees but then began to get back up. officers ordered Mr. Sterling to get down, but Mr. Sterling did not comply, and Officer Lake attempted unsuccessfully to use his Taser on Mr. Sterling again.
At this point, as Mr. Sterling stood to face the officers with his hands free, Officer Salamoni holstered his weapon, and then tackled Mr. Sterling; they both went to the ground, with Officer Salamoni on top of Mr. Sterling, who was on his back with his right hand partially under the hood of a car. Officer Lake joined them on the ground, kneeling on Mr. Sterling’s left arm while Officer Salamoni attempted to gain control over Mr. Sterling’s right arm.
Within a few seconds, we know from the audio and video that Officer Salamoni yelled, “Going for his pocket. He’s got a gun! Gun!”, or words to that effect. Officer Salamoni did not shoot at this point. Instead, he attempted to gain control of Mr. Sterling’s right hand, but we know from the video that he was unsuccessful. Officer Lake drew his weapon and yelled at Mr. Sterling, again directing him not to move. Less than one second later, during a point at which the location of Mr. Sterling’s right hand is not visible to the cameras, Officer Salamoni again yelled that Mr. Sterling was “going for the gun!” Officer Salamoni then fired three shots into Mr. Sterling’s chest.
In order to convict Officer Salamoni of a federal criminal civil rights violation for this shooting, we would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Officer Salamoni did not believe Mr. Sterling was going for a gun when he made that statement and simply wanted to shot him.
Within a few seconds of the first three shots, as Officer Salamoni and Mr. Sterling were both laying on the ground, Mr. Sterling began to sit up and roll to his left, with his back to the officers. At that point the officers could not see what Mr. Sterling was doing with his hands and whether he was going for his gun. Officer Lake yelled at Mr. Sterling to get on the ground, and when Mr. Sterling continued to move, Officer Salamoni fired three more shots into Mr. Sterling’s back.
Immediately after the shooting, video shows Officer Lake go directly to Mr. Sterling’s right pocket and retrieve a .38-caliber revolver. It was loaded. In statements made immediately following the incident, both officers stated they saw Mr. Sterling reaching for the gun, and saw the gun itself coming out of his pocket.
The struggle on the ground lasted a total of about 27 seconds. As a result, life and death decisions were being made in split seconds. This is an unfortunate reality of police work at a time when encounters between police and the community have become increasingly violent and, too often, deadly.
In this case, we consulted with two independent use-of-force experts whom the Civil Rights Division has previously engaged as government witnesses in other federal civil rights cases. Both experts are nationally-recognized authorities in this field, and they are truly independent; neither is from the Baton Rouge area or has any ties to the Baton Rouge Police Department or the officers involved. Now, I want to be clear: both experts criticized certain aspects of the officers’ techniques in this case. Having said that, the experts’ unanimous conclusion was that the officers’ actions were not unreasonable under the quickly unfolding and dangerous circumstances and therefore met constitutional standards. In the experts’ opinion, the officers cycled up and down a use-of-force continuum in a manner reasonable when confronting an armed suspect, before ultimately using lethal force, which they did not use until Officer Salamoni shouted that Mr. Sterling was reaching for his gun.
In light of all of the above, it was the unanimous decision of all the prosecutors and agents who handled the investigation that we must decline prosecution in this case.
As I said before, to prove a federal criminal civil rights violation, we would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the officers acted unreasonably and willfully, that is, that they acted with specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is the highest standard in federal criminal law. Being reckless, or escalating a situation that could have been de-escalated is not enough.
First, we are unable to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, the precise location of Mr. Sterling’s right hand at the moment at which the officer states, on the recording, that Mr. Sterling was “going for his gun.” In other words, we cannot establish that Mr. Sterling was not reaching for his gun -- or, more accurately, that the officers didn’t believe that he was reaching for his gun -- and therefore we cannot establish that the use of lethal force was unreasonable. Second, as I mentioned earlier, there is a distinct statutory requirement of willfulness. In our view, the evidence is insufficient to meet this element, because we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers knew that what they were doing was unreasonable or prohibited and that they chose to do it anyway.
There are no winners here and no victory for anyone. A man has died. A father, a nephew has died. My heart goes out to his family. For the family, for the community, for the police department, and for the cause of justice, please know that experienced, highly trained federal agents and prosecutors worked hard to investigate and examine the facts to determine if a federal criminal case could be brought here. We have all concluded that no such case can be made.
Going forward, we will continue to support and work with the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, which has been on the ground since last summer working to increase dialogue and engagement among civic and community leaders. And my office—which has long been involved in numerous community outreach projects and initiatives across Baton Rouge—will continue to look for opportunities to engage with students, lawyers, and others interested in federal civil rights law through healthy, productive dialogue.
The U.S. Department of Justice (of which we are all a part) remains committed to investigating allegations of excessive force by law enforcement officers, and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that all serious allegations of civil rights violations are thoroughly examined. The Department aggressively prosecutes civil rights violations whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so, and in fact there are other investigations and criminal prosecutions underway in this district. Having said that, based on the evidence in this particular case, all of the prosecutors and agents involved in this matter have come to the unanimous conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to charge a federal crime in connection with the July 5, 2016 fatal shooting of Alton Sterling.
The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, with the assistance of the Louisiana State Police, now intends to conduct its own inquiry into whether the conduct at issue violated any provision of Louisiana state law, and it will have at its disposal every piece of evidence that the federal investigation has been able to obtain.
Finally, I would like to discuss how we came to the decision to provide limited advance notice of today’s announcement. Given the events following Mr. Sterling’s death, we worked with the Governor, the Mayor, and our state, parish, and local law enforcement heads to establish an agreed-upon notice procedure that would minimize public safety concerns. That is the procedure implemented today.
I pray that God gives our community the strength to rise above this tragedy and all the events that followed, and that He enables us to listen to those different from ourselves so that we may become better because of it. God bless all those touched by this tragic incident and our great and resilient City of Baton Rouge.