‘Bad police work’ in Alton Sterling death, but don’t expect conviction

The cellphone videos of the July 5 confrontation that left Alton Sterling dead in the Triple S Food Mart parking lot are graphic, showing a Baton Rouge policeman kneeling on top of him open fire from point-blank range.

The clips, caught on two different phones by witnesses to Sterling's death and which run 48 and 35 seconds long, sparked several nights of protests in Baton Rouge and across the country, prompting a federal investigation into the shooting and placing the Baton Rouge Police Department under international scrutiny.

Five policing experts who reviewed the videos for The Advocate said the videos raised serious questions about the shooting, but most said it appeared unlikely that there's enough evidence to successfully bring a criminal case against Baton Rouge police officer Blane Salamoni, identified by a source as the policeman who fired the shots.

Four of the five experts expressed concerns about the apparent aggressiveness of the officers in dealing with Sterling, a CD peddler outside the shop who police were informed was armed, with the fifth stressing that not enough has been publicly released to draw any conclusions. Several also questioned why officers fired stun guns and tackled Sterling, moves that potentially put the policemen in far greater danger and left them with no ability to safely retreat.

But all said that without viewing the large amount of as-yet unreleased evidence — including 911 tapes, witness statements and several additional videos — it's impossible to draw definitive conclusions on the killing.

"There's no way to tell yet. There's so much we don't have yet," said Ronal Serpas, a Loyola University professor and former New Orleans Police Department superintendent. "We don't know what other angles are out there, what happened when they first approached him, what were the first words that were said, what were the first actions that were taken."

Federal officials last week refused to comment on the status of their criminal civil rights investigation or when the results of the probe that they began just days after the incident might be released. Although the August floods that ravaged the region displaced tens of thousands and focused both public attention and law enforcement resources on a new set of challenges in the Baton Rouge area, U.S. Attorney Walt Green said the floods didn't affect federal cases in the region "across the board."

When federal and state prosecutors begin to weigh the results of the FBI's investigation and decide whether to pursue criminal charges against the officers — Salamoni and Howie Lake II, who also wrestled with Sterling but isn't believed to have fired his weapon during the encounter — they'll consider a fairly narrow question, several experts said. That question would be: Did Salamoni reasonably fear for his life in the final seconds of Sterling's life?

"The question of a justified shooting comes down to that final moment," said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former police officer. "The benefit of the doubt in these kinds of cases generally goes to the police, and I think they'll have a very difficult time getting a conviction."

Philip Stinson, a former Ohio policeman and current professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, said the legal evaluation of whether Salamoni was justified in the killing largely hinges on the movements of Sterling's right hand, obscured from view in both publicly released videos.

"If he was going for his gun, then it was a justified shooting," said Stinson, who nonetheless called the incident the result of "incredibly bad" police work. "It still raises questions as to whether it was appropriate for the officers to get themselves in that situation."

Even if another video angle appears to contradict police claims, Stinson said, it remains unlikely Salamoni or Lake would face prison time without clear-cut evidence against them.

"I don't believe the officers are going to be charged in this case because they got a call about a man with a gun, he had a gun and (the officers) used Tasers," Stinson said. "Even if there were charges to be brought, in my experience, juries are very reluctant to second-guess a police officer who's making a split-second life or death decision, especially in a street encounter with a gun."

This is a long-form story by Bryn Stole. For the rest of the story, visit The Advocate’s website.