FBI to investigate police shooting of black man in Louisiana

Updated at 12:46 p.m. ET

The Justice Department is investigating the killing of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man who was shot to death early Tuesday after officers were called to a convenience store. Witnesses captured the encounter on a cellphone video that shows two officers had Sterling on the ground at the time of the shooting.

The FBI is opening a civil rights investigation into Sterling's death, NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, citing a statement from the Justice Department that says it is seeking a "fair, thorough and impartial investigation."

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Police Chief Carl Dabadie said Wednesday that the two officers involved in the shooting are on administrative leave, and that after conducting initial investigations, his department has turned the entire case over to U.S. attorneys and the FBI. The local district attorney said his office was not investigating the shooting either, leaving that to the Justice Department.

In the 48-second video that was filmed from a nearby car, one of the officers who were kneeling over Sterling is heard yelling "He's got a gun! Gun!" At least one officer then draws a weapon from his holster and aims it at Sterling. Seconds later, shots are heard.

After that video emerged Tuesday, it helped propel protests that involved dozens of people — many of them blocking the street where the shooting occurred.

The shooting took place at the Triple S Food Mart on Baton Rouge's North Foster Drive around 12:35 a.m. Tuesday. That's when uniformed officers responded to a disturbance call that Baton Rouge police say came from someone who said "a black male who was selling music [CDs] and wearing a red shirt threatened him with a gun."

The department says that after its officers made contact with Sterling in the convenience store's parking lot, "an altercation between Sterling and the officers ensued. Sterling was shot during the altercation and died at the scene."

We'll include the video here with this warning: The video shows an intense scene that ends with gunfire. You can also see it online.

From the video and witness accounts, it seems that the officers initially used a Taser on Sterling. The owner and manager of the Triple S store is Abdullah Muflahi. He tells local newspaper The Advocate that the officers retrieved a gun from Sterling's pocket — but, Muflahi says, he didn't see the man's hands go near his pockets during the struggle.

Muflahi, who tells The Advocate that Sterling had been selling CDs outside his store for several years, said that the man was shot several times.

The Advocate reports:

"Sterling appeared to die quickly, Muflahi said. Just after the killing, the officer who fired the bullets cursed, and both officers seemed like they were 'freaking out,' Muflahi said.

"The store owner said he heard one of the officers say, 'Just leave him.' "

Several public figures have issued statements about the incident — including Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who said the video " was deeply troubling and has understandably evoked strong emotion and anger in our community."

Richmond called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the case, saying, "There are a number of unanswered questions surrounding Mr. Sterling's death. Including questions about the initial calls for police presence, the level of force used by officers, the verbal and physical altercation, and the response of the officers after he was shot."