WASHINGTON — Two white police officers will not face federal charges in the fatal shooting of a black man last year in Baton Rouge, La., which caused widespread unrest there. The decision was made with the Trump administration under scrutiny about how it will handle prosecutions in racially charged police shootings, a priority of the Obama administration.
The decision, in the death of Alton B. Sterling, was confirmed Tuesday afternoon by two people familiar with it.
Local officials criticized the Justice Department for not informing them before the news became public. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who inherited the Baton Rouge case, is certain to face further attention over how he proceeds in the fatal shooting Saturday of a 15-year-old black student by an officer near Dallas. The officer was fired Tuesday.
The Sterling decision, the Dallas killing and an officer’s guilty plea Tuesday in a fatal 2015 shooting in South Carolina reignited a debate over race and criminal justice that has played out in various ways since Michael Brown was killed nearly three years ago by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Mr. Sessions — who, in the first months of his tenure, ordered a broad review of federal agreements with law enforcement agencies — will oversee the outcomes of other cases, including those surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner, who was placed in a chokehold by a New York police officer, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
The bar for charging police officers with federal civil rights violations is extremely high, and prosecutions are rare. Even the Obama administration, which cultivated an aggressive reputation on such cases, declined to prosecute officers in several high-profile killings, most notably the 2014 shooting of Mr. Brown, and it saw challenges in bringing charges in Mr. Sterling’s death.
On Tuesday evening, around the Triple S Food Mart parking lot where Mr. Sterling was killed, people congregated in the same way they did last summer. Mr. Sterling’s face is painted near the entrance, with stuffed animals in front. Signs advertise specials on cigarettes and fried chicken, and another reads, “Stop the Killing.”
“I’m not surprised, because it happens all the time,” said Kosher Weber, 21, an African-American resident of Baton Rouge, her voice cracking in anger. “Where do things go from here? There’s no justice. There’s no nothing.”
Derrick Brody, 45, said: “Over and over again. They kill a human being, and they get away with it, just ’cause they got a blue suit.”
“No one in my office or the governor’s office has been notified by the U.S. attorney’s office of a decision or timeline,” she said in a statement. “When I know something, the people of Baton Rouge will know, and we will get through it together.”
L. Chris Stewart and Justin Bamberg, lawyers for Mr. Sterling’s family, confirmed that they had not been told ahead of time.
“We have been promised that we will meet in person with D.O.J. before any announcement is made,” they said in a statement.
In a Twitter post on Tuesday night, the Louisiana attorney general, Jeff Landry, said his office had still not been notified of the Justice Department’s decision. “Our office will not comment until that time,” Mr. Landry wrote.
Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, said Mr. Sterling had been “shot in cold blood” and wrote on Twitter, “The DOJ’s decision not to pursue justice is a travesty.”
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Police Department also declined to comment and would not confirm the employment status of the two officers who had been under investigation, referring inquiries to the Justice Department.
The officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, did not respond to phone messages. Both were put on administrative leave last year.
Early on July 5, 2016, Officers Salamoni and Lake responded to a report that a black man in a red shirt selling CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart had threatened the caller with a gun.
In a cellphone video, an officer is seen pushing Mr. Sterling onto the hood of the car and tackling him to the ground. He is held down by the officers as one appears to hold a gun above his chest.
Mr. Sterling had a criminal history, including convictions for battery and illegal possession of a gun, although it was not clear whether the officers knew that.
The video of Mr. Sterling’s death — and one of the fatal shooting of another black man, Philando Castile, by white officers in Minnesota the next day — stoked a debate about race and criminal justice that intensified when a sniper gunned down police officers, killing five, at a demonstration in Dallas on July 7.
That protest was among dozens nationwide in the days after Mr. Sterling’s death. In Baton Rouge alone, more than 100 people were arrested, including DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist for the Black Lives Matter movement who spent time in jail there on accusations that he ignored instructions to stay out of the road.
About two weeks after Mr. Sterling’s death, a man attacked police officers in Baton Rouge, killing three and wounding three others.
In directing the Justice Department to review its agreements with law enforcement agencies, Mr. Sessions said “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” entire departments.
His predecessor, Loretta E. Lynch, released a report in August that illustrated a systemic pattern of discrimination by Baltimore’s Police Department, which had disproportionately stopped and searched black residents. And last summer, President Barack Obama denounced “the racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system,” while emphasizing that his comments were not an attack on law enforcement itself.
At a confirmation hearing in January, Mr. Sessions expounded on his opposing views, suggesting that civil rights investigations inhibited the police in their duties.
“Law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the actions of a few bad actors and for allegations about police that were not true,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Morale has suffered,” he added, noting that in the face of public criticism, more police officers had died on the job. “This is a wake-up call. This must not continue.”
The Justice Department must still decide whether to bring charges in other cases, including the death of Tamir Rice. Officials say that case poses challenges because the boy had a toy gun.
Ms. Lynch authorized prosecutors last year to seek charges in the death of Mr. Garner. Civil rights prosecutors have been presenting evidence before a grand jury in that case. The officer has said his use of force was justified.
Earlier on Tuesday, Michael T. Slager — an officer in South Carolina who was charged by the Justice Department in the fatal shooting of a black man, Walter L. Scott — pleaded guilty to a single count of using excessive force to deprive Mr. Scott of his civil rights, under a plea deal in which officials will not pursue other charges against him.
Mr. Slager — fired from the North Charleston police force after he shot Mr. Scott, who was unarmed and fleeing, in April 2015 — could be sentenced to life in prison after acknowledging that he used deadly force “even though it was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances.”
The Justice Department sought an indictment of Mr. Slager well before Mr. Sterling died, and its lawyers were preparing for trial. On Tuesday, Mr. Sessions said in a news release on the plea that his department would “hold accountable any law enforcement officer who violates the civil rights of our citizens by using excessive force.”