By Jon Herskovitz
(Reuters) – Louisiana will not charge two white police officers who in 2016 fatally shot Alton Sterling, one of series of black men slain by police that sparked protests across the United States, because evidence showed their actions were justified, a state official said on Tuesday.
Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement and inflamed a national debate over racial bias in U.S. policing.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, said Baton Rouge officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake had good reason to believe Sterling, 37, was armed with a gun and was resisting arrest.
“Our investigation has concluded that officers Lake and Salamoni attempted to make a lawful arrest of Alton Sterling based upon probable cause,” Landry told a news conference.
Civil rights activists contend the officers escalated tensions during the arrest in a convenience store parking lot, turning it into a deadly encounter.
“He was murdered by two white racist police officers. He was murdered like an animal,” Sterling’s aunt, Veda Washington-Abusaleh, told reporters in video posted on social media by local media.
Landry told reporters the two Baton Rouge officers gave verbal instructions and tried non-lethal methods to subdue Sterling, who did not comply.
Sterling was shot outside the store on July 5, 2016, after a resident reported he had been threatened by a black man selling CDs. Police said Sterling was trying to pull a loaded gun out of his pocket when Salamoni opened fire.
“There was never any criminal activity here. It was an unfortunate situation but it was a justified shooting,” John McLindon, an attorney for Salamoni, said in a telephone interview.
L. Chris Stewart, an Atlanta-based lawyer representing Sterlings’ relatives, said the family was disappointed by the decision.
“This case did not even go to a grand jury, which would have allowed the citizens of Baton Rouge to decide this. It takes courage and we just didn’t see that in this situation,” he said in a telephone interview.
In June 2017, Sterling’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, alleging a history of excessive-force and racism toward African-Americans.
Democratic Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said state prosecutors had followed the law in evaluating the case. He supported calls for the Baton Rouge Police Department to conduct a review to determine if disciplinary action should be taken.
“We owe this final review to the Baton Rouge community and the Sterling family,” he said in a statement.
The two officers are on paid administrative leave, Salamoni’s lawyer said.
The Sterling shooting prompted nationwide protests, including a demonstration two days later in Dallas where five law enforcement officers were fatally shot by an African-American ex-serviceman.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler)