BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) – The family of Alton Sterling, the black man shot dead by white police last summer outside a Baton Rouge convenience store, sued the city and its police department Tuesday saying the killing was part of a “long standing pervasive policy of tolerating racist behavior by some of its officers.”
The 43-page federal lawsuit, filed by and on behalf of Sterling’s children, some of whom are still minors, claims officers Howie Lake and Blaine Salamoni had not been properly trained in how to de-escalate potentially aggressive situations.
Had the officers been properly trained, Sterling’s kids say, they would not have arrived at the convenience store, responding to a tip that a crime had occurred, with their guns drawn.
During the early morning hours of July 5, 2017, the officers responded to a 911 call reporting that a black man who was selling CDs in the store parking lot had threatened the caller with a gun.
Upon arriving, the complaint says, Salamoni took out his gun, pointed it at Sterling’s head and yelled, “Bitch, I will fucking kill you” and “I am going to shoot you in your motherfucking head.”
The complaint offers this description of what followed:
Sterling attempted to put his hands on the hood of the police cruiser, but a struggle ensued. Sterling asked the officers what he had done wrong and again put his hands on the hood of the car. As he did so, Officer Lake began to Tase him. Sterling fell to his knees and tried to get back up, so Lake used the Taser a second time, the complaint says.
Salamoni wrestled Sterling to the ground so that Sterling lay on his back and pinned down his arm. According to the complaint, Sterling had breathing problems that prevented him from being able to lie on his back. As result, he continued to squirm while on the ground in an effort to breath. Salamoni yelled for him to be still, and then fired three shots into his chest. He later claimed he thought Sterling was reaching for a gun.
After an investigation, the Justice Department said a loaded revolver was found in Sterling’s pocket.
Sterling, injured, tried to move onto his side and Salamoni fired three more shots into his back, the complaint says.
“The City of Baton Rouge has a long standing pervasive policy of tolerating racist behavior by some of its officers” according to the lawsuit, which continues on to say “the Chief of Police has knowledge of such incidents, not limited to racist group text incidents by officers in 2014 and 2017 including an incident calling Alton Sterling protestors chimps.”
There “multiple verbal racist comments by officers reported to the department,” the lawsuit says. “[T]olerance of such behavior directly leads to the mistreatment of individuals of African American descent.”
The lawsuit says poor people and African Americans are targeted by Baton Rouge police officers who benefit through overtime pay for arrests made.
Misconduct and excessive force are not new to the Baton Rouge Police Department. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, police officers from as far away as New Mexico and Michigan were sent to Baton Rouge to help keep the peace. Just two days after arriving, the officers were removed from Baton Rouge because “of concerns about misconduct.”
“The visiting officers said Baton Rouge cops referred to African Americans as ‘heathens’ and ‘animals’ that ‘needed to be beaten down,’” according to news accounts.
“[T]roopers observed Baton Rouge Police Officers engage in actions that were an affront to their senses of dignity and respect,” a Michigan State Police spokeswoman told reporters afterward, the lawsuit says.
As if killing Sterling wasn’t bad enough, Sterling’s children say, the second volley of shots was completely uncalled for, and shooting Sterling in his back while he was on the ground was egregious.
The officers’ “approach violated appropriate protocol and procedure that would have been used by a reasonable officer in a similar circumstance.”
The fact that Officer Lake did not shoot his weapon at Sterling at all, which Lake later told investigators was because he didn’t fear for his life, is proof enough Sterling posed no “imminent danger” to the officers.
Two separate video clips of Sterling’s shooting that surfaced on social media immediately after set off a world-wide wave of outrage.
The Justice Department announced last May it will not bring federal charges against Salamoni and Lake for Sterling’s death.
The officers could still face prosecution. Last month, the office of Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a conservative Republican, said it was opening a review into whether state criminal charges are warranted.
Plaintiffs’ attorney L. Chris Stewart told the AP Tuesday that he expects current and former police officers with the Baton Rouge Police Department will come forward and testify under oath and back up “everything” alleged in the lawsuit.
“This isn’t just lawyers talking and arguing,” Stewart said. “We have talked to officers who have said something is wrong and it must stop.”