BATON ROUGE, La. — In a swift move by authorities to keep tensions from boiling over, the U.S. Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation Wednesday into the video-recorded killing of a black man who was shot as he scuffled with two white police officers on the pavement outside a convenience store.
A gun was taken from 37-year-old Alton Sterling after he was killed early Tuesday in the parking lot where he regularly sold homemade music CDs from a folding table, the Associated Press reported, citing an official who was not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It was not clear from the murky cellphone video 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.
The shooting in the Louisiana capital set off angry protests in the city's black community and brought calls for an outside investigation. It came 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.
Moving quickly just one day after the shooting, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards asked the Justice Department to take the lead in the investigation.
Baton Rouge police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said that 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 a gun outside the store, authorities said.
In the cellphone video taken by a community activist and posted online, 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.
The officers, identified by the chief as Blane Salamoni, a four-year member of the department, and Howie Lake II, who has been on the force for three years, were placed on administrative leave as per standard department procedure.