“You may disagree with who Alton Sterling was as a person, but look at his children. There’s five children that have to be taken care of for the rest of their life – five!” attorney Chris Stewart said, after filing a wrongful death suit on behalf of Sterling's children.
The civil suit, filed in state district court Tuesday names the City of Baton Rouge, its police department and police chief – as well as the two officers involved in the July 5th, 2016, shooting death of Sterling – as defendants.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to pursue a federal criminal case against officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, saying the available evidence could not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officers were not in imminent danger.
“These officers violated many, many of the Baton Rouge Police Department’s procedures,” stated Michael Adams, one of the attorneys representing the five plaintiffs through the children's three mothers. “But for them violating those procedures, we would not be faced with the wrongful death of Mr. Sterling.
“We don’t think every cop in Baton Rouge is a bad cop, but we think that an environment has been allowed to fester that would allow Officer Salamoni and Officer Lake to feel like it was okay for them to conduct themselves the way they did,” Adams added. “And their conduct was reprehensible,”
That’s one side of the story. Yet a look at social media reaction to news of the lawsuit's filing shows many believe Sterling’s failure to completely comply with police commands resulted in his death.
“’Just follow the instructions of the officer’—I think you’ll hear law enforcement say that,” state Representative Chad Brown of Plaquemine said in May, as he presented his bill that would require driver education courses to include extensive instruction on how to respond to police stops.
Brown, an attorney, admits that situation can be confusing for anyone.
“The officer comes and he may ask you for identification, proof of insurance. Or sometimes the officer may want you to exit the vehicle. Sometimes the officer may want you to remain in the vehicle. You know, sometimes it’s wise to have your hands on the steering wheel,” Brown explained, adding that leaves the citizen asking, “How am I supposed to behave? What’s the right thing to do?”
Brown's HB 241, as well as a mirror bill – SB 17, by Shreveport's Ryan Gatti – has been signed into law by the governor, and takes effect August 1, to help drivers be better prepared for any encounters with police.