The feds have closed the books on the Alton Sterling shooting, but many questions still remain

SIGNS OF HOPE: Baton Rouge resident Everett Matthews holds up a sign on Tuesday, May 2, outside the Triple S Food Mart, where Alton Sterling was killed last year. (Photo by The Associated Press)

For nearly 10 months after the July 2016 shooting death of Alton Sterling by two Baton Rouge Police officers, the U.S. Justice Department investigation into the killing hung heavy over the city like some sort of malarial fog.

Now that the DOJ has closed the books on the case, determining that insufficient evidence exists to prosecute officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II for violating Sterling’s civil rights, Baton Rouge can regroup—however outraged some are with the decision—and try to move on.

But the story of the Sterling shooting is far from over. Though the feds have declined to prosecute—which really wasn’t a surprise, given the high bar needed to prove civil rights violations beyond a reasonable doubt—attention turns to the state level.

Attorney General Jeff Landry now has the evidence in the case, and has referred the matter to the Louisiana State Police. With assistance from a prosecutor in his office, they will review the evidence for themselves then Landry will determine whether to prosecute the officers on state charges.

Attorneys for the Sterling family say they’ve seen video from the incident, never released publicly, that shows Salamoni threatening Sterling before the scuffle between them even ensued.

“I can tell you after what we heard today, there’s no doubt that (Salamoni) needs to be prosecuted,” state Rep. Edmond Jordan, an attorney for the Sterling family, said at a May 3 press conference.

That may be. But political wisdom says Landry, a far right conservative with his eye on the Governor’s Mansion, isn’t likely to go after the officers.

In the meantime, the city waits again and wonders. There are still persistent questions about the evidence the public hasn’t yet seen, those tapes Jordan and others have referred to over the past few months. Groups like Together Baton Rouge are publicly demanding their release so citizens can know the whole story and better understand—or challenge—the conclusions prosecutors have reached.

There are broader questions, too, about the future of police reform. Mayor Sharon Weston Broome has said it’s a priority of her administration. But given the tensions that exist between the police union and the administration—to say nothing of the frigid relationship between the mayor and the police chief, or the mayor and the Metro Council—it’s difficult to envision any meaningful change any time soon.

There are questions about what this all means for the St. George movement. Supporters of the incorporation effort can legally begin gathering signatures again this summer, after their first effort went down in defeat two years ago. Will their frustration with a city divided by race give new impetus to their initiative to strike out on their own?

Finally, much remains unanswered about how to address the economic disparity between the affluent and impoverished parts of the city. Will the aftermath of Sterling bring new focus to nascent economic development efforts? Or will the community become further divided?

—Stephanie Riegel

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