BATON ROUGE, La. (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors said on Wednesday they would not charge two Louisiana police officers in the fatal shooting of a black man last summer, prompting family members of the slain man to call for a state investigation.
The death of Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, the state capital, was one in a series of racially charged police killings that inflamed a national debate over treatment of minorities, and especially young black men, by law enforcement.
The July 5, 2016 shooting prompted nationwide protests including a demonstration two days later in Dallas at which five law enforcement officers were fatally shot by an African-American former U.S. serviceman.
As of nightfall on Wednesday, the streets of Baton Rouge were quiet, with a few protesters gathering under intermittent rain.
In announcing the decision not to file federal charges against officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson told reporters in Baton Rouge there was “insufficient” evidence to prove civil rights violations.
Amundson said investigators could not determine whether Sterling was reaching for a gun at the time he was shot.
Members of Sterling’s family, in a simultaneous news conference, called on Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to pursue state criminal charges against the officers.
“Open up your heart, your eyes, and give us the justice that we deserve,” said Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s oldest son, fighting back tears.
Lawyers for the family said U.S. officials told them Salamoni was recorded on video threatening to kill Sterling less than 90 seconds before firing the fatal shots.
A lengthy summary of the Justice Department’s findings released on Wednesday did not include that detail.
Landry warned that a state investigation, which was delayed to allow the federal probe to proceed, “could take a considerable amount of time.”
The decision not to charge the two officers by the U.S. Department of Justice came amid scrutiny of how aggressively President Donald Trump’s administration will seek to hold police officers accountable in such situations.
Both Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have criticized the Obama administration, saying it targeted police unfairly in civil rights investigations.
Sessions is still responsible for deciding whether to bring charges in other high-profile police killings, including the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland that same year.
The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter, Marjorie Esman, however, said the decision was consistent with the Obama administration’s approach in similar cases, given the high legal standard in federal civil rights cases.
Wednesday’s events came a day after a white former South Carolina officer pleaded guilty in the 2015 shooting of an unarmed black man and a Texas officer was fired for shooting an unarmed 15-year-old boy on Saturday.
Sterling was shot outside a convenience store after a resident reported he had been threatened by a black man selling CDs. Officers said that Sterling was attempting to pull a loaded gun out of his pocket when Salamoni opened fire, according to the Justice Department summary.
The two officers are on paid administrative leave pending an internal police investigation.
Salamoni’s attorney, John McLindon, said he expects the state will come to the same conclusion as the federal probe.
“There’s not going to be any finding of any criminal conduct,” McLindon said by phone Wednesday evening.
Lake’s lawyer, Fred Crifasi, said the officer was relieved by the Justice Department’s decision but would not comment further.
Additional reporting by Dan Trotta and Gina Cherelus in New York, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Letitia Stein in Tampa; Writing by Joseph Ax and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis