BATON ROUGE, La. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A Baton Rouge official believes the police shooting that took the life of 37-year-old Alton Sterling was justified.
Sterling was shot multiple times in the chest early Tuesday as he wrestled with two white police officers outside the convenience store where he sold music and movies on compact discs. Police say he was armed.
Cellphone video of the shooting posted online by a community activist set off angry protests, coming at a time when law enforcement officers across the country are under close scrutiny over what some see as indiscriminate use of deadly force against blacks.
The video appears to show Sterling pinned down before he was shot.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore told CBS News that Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II may have acted within their rights to shoot Sterling.
“This is potentially a state authorized killing,” Moore explained to CBS News. “It gives law enforcement officers the authority and mandates them to kill when in defense of themselves or others.”
A law enforcement official said a gun was taken from Sterling after he was killed early Tuesday. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It was not clear from the murky cellphone footage whether Sterling had the gun in his hand or was reaching for it when he was shot. A witness said he saw police pull a gun from Sterling’s pocket after the shooting.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said Sterling was armed – Dabadie didn’t specify the type of weapon – but that there are still questions about what happened.
“Like you, there is a lot that we do not understand. And at this point, like you, I am demanding answers,” Dabadie said, calling the shooting a “horrible tragedy.”
Sterling was confronted by police after an anonymous caller reported being threatened by someone with gun outside the store, authorities said.
In cellphone video, one of the officers tackled Sterling, and the two officers pinned him to the pavement.
Someone yelled, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” and one officer pulled his weapon from his holster. After some shouting, what sounded like a gunshot could be heard. The camera pulled away before more shots were heard.
Salamoni, a four-year member of the department, and Lake, who has been on the force for three years, were placed on administrative leave.
Lake was involved in another police shooting in December 2014. He told detectives investigating that shooting that he fired six or seven times when a suspect refused to drop his gun, threatened to kill himself and pointed his revolver at officers. The man was wounded by police.
In the shooting Tuesday, authorities would not say whether one or both officers fired their weapons or how many times.
The store owner, Abdullah Muflahi, released a video that he said he shot from a slightly different angle. He said Sterling was not holding a gun during the shooting but that he saw officers remove one from his pocket afterward. His video shows an officer reaching into Sterling’s pocket to grab an object.
Muflahi said an officer fired four to six shots into Sterling’s chest.
The Justice Department says it will open a civil rights investigation after Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards asked the DOJ to lead a civil rights investigation into the killing.
“I have very serious concerns. The video is disturbing, to say the least,” the governor said at a news conference.
A protest is planned at Union Square Park in New York City at 5 p.m.
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