Louisiana officers cleared in prior use of force complaints

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Four previous “use of force” complaints were lodged against the two police officers in the video-recorded shooting death of a man and they were cleared in all of them, according to internal affairs documents released Thursday.

The complaints included three black men and a black juvenile. One of them was shot when police said he pointed a gun at them and the others were injured during arrests and a police pursuit in a vehicle.

The documents were released a day after the Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling, who was killed by police during an altercation outside of a convenience store where he was selling CDs. Police say he was armed and an eyewitness said he had a gun in his pocket.

Cellphone video posted online set off angry protests in this city of about 229,000, where 54 percent of the population is black and more than 25 percent live in poverty.

A group of community and faith-based leaders called Together Baton Rouge asked the Justice Department on Thursday to widen the scope of its investigation, saying it should include possible criminal violations such as battery, assault with a deadly weapon, negligent homicide and manslaughter.

“We urge the Justice Department to conduct an investigation beyond just a civil rights violation because perhaps some other laws, both state and local laws, were violated, and they need to be investigated as well,” said the Rev. Lee Wesley, pastor of Community Bible Baptist Church.

Richard Carbo, spokesman for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said the U.S. attorney’s office in Baton Rouge is leading the investigation and will look into not only whether civil rights were violated, but also any other violations of state and federal law.

If they find any violation of state laws, the U.S. attorney’s office will refer it back to the local district attorney for prosecution.

“They won’t prosecute it, but they’ll do the investigating side of it,” Carbo said.

The Justice Department’s civil rights investigation will look into whether the officers willfully violated Sterling’s rights through the use of unreasonable or excessive force.

Similar investigations, which often take many months, were opened after Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and following Eric Garner’s chokehold death in New York City.

Federal investigators must meet a high legal burden to bring a civil rights prosecution, establishing that an officer knowingly used unreasonable force under the circumstances and did not simply make a mistake or use poor judgment.

Baton Rouge officials said Wednesday that police would do an internal investigation but that they would otherwise let federal officials handle the civil rights probe.

“There is also potential – and I use that word cautiously – but there is also possible criminal violations,” East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore said.

Moore didn’t return messages Thursday to clarify his remarks and the Justice Department said it wouldn’t comment further because of the ongoing investigation.

The governor is meeting with federal officials for an update on the investigation Thursday and will attend an evening vigil.

The officers in the shooting were Blane Salamoni, a four-year member of the department, and Howie Lake II, who has been on the force for three years. Each had two prior “use of force” complaints.

Lake was involved in a police shooting in December 2014. He told detectives investigating that shooting that he fired six or seven times when a black man refused to drop his gun, threatened to kill himself and pointed his revolver at officers. The man was wounded by police.

He also injured a combative black juvenile when they went to the ground during a struggle on April 19, 2014, according to police documents. The juvenile cut his chin.

Salamoni’s complaints involved punching a black man on Aug. 5, 2015, when he tried to grab the officer’s stun gun, according to documents. The man had a cut on his head and needed stiches.

He was in a vehicle pursuit on June 17, 2015, in which a black man was injured when he crashed into a retaining wall, the documents said. The pursuit began when someone was pushed out of the man’s car.

Separately, Salamoni was issued a letter of caution for his involvement in a “preventable crash” on June 13, 2012, in which he damaged department equipment.

Both officers have been placed on administrative leave, standard department procedure.

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