Scrutiny falls on police handling of Baton Rouge protesters


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — After nearly of week of protests, Baton Rouge police are taking criticism for their methods of dealing with demonstrators.

Nearly 200 were arrested over the weekend, and the district attorney said Monday that any decisions on charges against the protesters will be made on a case-by-case basis.

Protests have spread across the country as people express outrage over the recent deaths of two black men at the hands of police in Louisiana and in Minnesota.

“We’re going to do as good job as we can, as quickly as we can, to try to go through the (police) reports as they come in,” East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III said.

Moore suggested that “first offenders” and people who may have just “stepped over a line” could have their cases resolved more quickly than those of protesters accused of carrying guns or injuring officers.

But with tensions rising since last week’s killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota by white officers, and an attack on police by a black sniper in Dallas that killed five officers, many have questioned whether the police response has been appropriate.

Kristy Carter said she’s been protesting every night since Sterling was killed. She said that officers outside the police station said they don’t have a problem as long as protesters don’t cross barricades or stop traffic — but that in practice it’s different.

“Yesterday evening we were standing here … and they just started coming and attacking the crowd for no reason,” Carter said of police. “They are telling us not to be violent, but they are being violent against us.”

Jade Flint said police seemed to be getting more agitated as the Saturday evening protests went on.

“The job is to protect us while we are out here trying to protest for our rights. Not to agitate us and pick and grab people,” she said.

Kira Marrero, a 22-year-old New Orleans resident who graduated last year from Williams College in Massachusetts, was the first protester freed from Baton Rouge’s jail on Sunday. She accused police of acting in an “inflammatory” manner and said an officer had pointed a rifle at her and other protesters before her arrest.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said Monday that Baton Rouge police “used violent, militarized tactics on groups of people who have gathered peacefully in protest of Alton Sterling’s killing.”

On Sunday, Amnesty International questioned the high number of arrests during Saturday’s protests and whether it was a “proportionate response to peaceful protests.”

Louisiana authorities have said repeatedly that they have no problem with protesters and pointed out the number of rallies that have been coordinated with authorities and have gone off without problems.

On Sunday some 2,000 people rallied outside the Capitol building, State Police Maj. Doug Cain said, calling that initial protest “very organized and peaceful.”

In the first few days after Sterling’s death, police took a more reserved approach to enforcement, keeping a low profile as hundreds of people gathered outside the convenience store where Sterling died.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said Friday that his department was striving to avoid a “military-style response” to the protests.

By Friday, tensions ratcheted up. Police have arrested 200 demonstrators over a three-day period and taken to the streets in riot gear, carrying rifles and driving armored vehicles.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Sunday he’s “very proud” of how Louisiana’s law enforcement agencies responded to the protests and that he doesn’t believe police officers have been overly aggressive.

A Baton Rouge police spokesman said Monday that the arrests stemmed largely from people not complying with officers’ commands.

During a confrontation Sunday evening near an interstate ramp, a police officer in an armored vehicle had warned protesters over a loudspeaker that they would be arrested if they didn’t leave the area. Within minutes, officers in riot gear began making dozens of arrests.

“They had several opportunities to get out of the road, to disperse. They were ignored,” said Baton Rouge Police Sgt. Don Coppola.

Asked why some officers are armed with high-powered rifles at protests, Coppola said, “You don’t really know what you’re walking into. You want to have every precautionary means that you may need … to disperse these crowds.”

Coppola said the department respects people’s right to protest peacefully, and that people from outside Baton Rouge are largely responsible for confrontations at protests.

Police have confiscated three rifles, three shotguns and two pistols during protests, Coppola said earlier in an email.

One officer was hit by a projectile and injured in the weekend protests, authorities said.

On Monday, convenience store owner Abdullah Muflahi filed a lawsuit against Baton Rouge police alleging that he was illegally detained after he recorded the confrontation between police and Sterling on his cellphone. The suit says he was kept in the back of a police vehicle for four hours and detained at the Louisiana State Police headquarters for two hours while he was questioned.

A search warrant for surveillance video from the store said that, during the arrest, officers saw “the butt of a gun” in Sterling’s pocket and that he tried “to reach for the gun from his pocket.”

The Justice Department has opened a federal civil rights investigation of Sterling’s death. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said in a statement that he won’t have access to the federal investigation on the shooting until it’s completed and a decision has been made on potential federal charges.

Moore, the local district attorney, said the Justice Department would rather not have “parallel investigations.”

“It’s better that DOJ do their work. They’re completely independent, from nowhere around here,” he said.

Moore also said he’s recusing himself from any state criminal investigation into the shooting death of Sterling. He cited his professional relationship with the parents of one of the officers involved in the shooting, Blane Salamoni.

Sterling’s funeral will be held Friday in Baton Rouge. Services will be at the Southern University F.G. Clark Activity Center. A viewing is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., with the service to follow at 11 a.m.

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Associated Press reporter Janet McConnaughey contributed from New Orleans.

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