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Justice Department Investigates Baton Rouge Police Shooting


Now, in an attempt to cool public anger, local authorities in Baton Rouge have turned over the investigation of this shooting to the FBI. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, bringing in the feds gives local authorities some political cover, but it also comes with risks.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: There was a time when it would be shocking to hear a police chief saying this.


CARL DABADIE: We are going to turn the entire case over to the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI to conduct the investigation from this point.

KASTE: That's Baton Rouge Chief Carl Dabadie yesterday morning. Traditionally, police departments have resisted having their cops investigated by outsiders, let alone the feds. But that's changing dramatically.

STEPHEN RUSHIN: No question, no question.

KASTE: Stephen Rushin teaches at The University of Alabama Law School where he researches the fed's involvement with local law enforcement. He thinks the rise of cellphone videos and the Black Lives Matter movement have increased the public's scrutiny on chiefs so much that they've come to welcome federal involvement.

RUSHIN: Handing this over to the federal government allows them to essentially hand the baton entirely to a separate group of people to be more directly responsible for the investigation and the outcome of that investigation.

KASTE: Bringing in the feds also has some more subtle benefits. For instance, take what Jim Craft calls the problem of public impatience. Craft is the former police chief of Lafayette and now the head of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.

JIM CRAFT: The problem is these investigations take time, and people are, you know, impatient. And they want to know right now and they want to see all of the evidence and everything. And, you know, if it's evidence, you can't just be showing that around if its use is intended for later.

KASTE: For instance, in the Alton Sterling case, people are demanding to see security camera video, footage that the police confiscated from the store where he was shot. This is State Representative C. Denise Marcelle at a press conference yesterday.


C. DENISE MARCELLE: And I think a lot of the unrest is in the fact that we do have a video at the store, and why haven't they released that video, I don't understand that.

KASTE: Actually, there can be some good investigative reasons for withholding video, but explaining that to the public isn't the police department's problem anymore now that the feds are involved. Still, this doesn't mean that the department has just dropped this case. Jim Craft says when outsiders come in to do the criminal investigation, the police department still has its own work to do.

CRAFT: What's called an administrative investigation and that's to determine, you know, if any policies and procedures of the agency were violated, was the use of force protocol or policy violated, and that sort of thing.

KASTE: In other words, whether the officers should be disciplined or fired. The other thing to keep in mind here, especially for people welcoming the federal investigation, is this...

RUSHIN: Federal civil rights cases are incredibly hard to prove.

KASTE: That's Stephen Rushin again of The University of Alabama Law School. He says the fed's mandate is not to investigate whether the officers committed murder or manslaughter. Rather, it's to see whether they violated Sterling's federal civil rights.

RUSHIN: You've got to be able to show that an officer willfully violated the civil rights of the victim. That's a really high evidentiary standard that goes above and beyond, from a mental state perspective, above and beyond what you've got to prove in state court typically.

KASTE: If the feds find evidence only of state crimes, they're likely to kick the case back to local authorities - not necessarily what the public is expecting. But Rushin says it could also go another way. If the feds find evidence that Sterling was shot because of systemic problems in the police department, say bad training, then they could invoke another federal law and demand department-wide reforms, a process that can take years and cost a city millions. Rushin says that's the gamble a police chief takes when calling in the feds. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.