Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was shot and killed Tuesday by two police officers in Baton Rouge, La. Video of the incident reveals that Sterling was pinned to the ground by both officers at the time he was shot at point-blank range.
As the Advocate first reported, department spokesperson Cpl. L’Jean McKneely said that the officers involved in the shooting were likely not interviewed by investigators. “We give officers normally a day or so to go home and think about it” he said. (District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III. later said that the officers were interviewed in the presence of their attorneys.)
But the kind of waiting period McKneely referenced isn't just informal department protocol—it's state law. Louisiana is one of 14 states with a Police Officer's Bill of Rights. The protections set out by these laws can vary from state to state, but Louisiana's law allows officers to wait up to 30 days before being interviewed as part of an investigation. This applies to officers being interviewed as the subject of an investigation or as a witness to an investigation.
More from the statute:
Any interrogation of a police employee or law enforcement officer in connection with an investigation shall be for a reasonable period of time and shall allow for reasonable periods for the rest and personal necessities of such police employee or law enforcement officer. […]
The police employee or law enforcement officer being questioned, whether as a target or as a witness in an administrative investigation, shall have the right to be represented by counsel, other representative, or both, of the police. The police employee or law enforcement officer shall be granted up to thirty days to secure such representation, during which time all questioning shall be suspended.
Writing in The New York Times about Maryland's version of the law, former federal prosecutor and Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler argued that this gap can thwart the proper functioning of an investigation: "It is far from a fanciful concern that the police will take advantage of all the extra due process they get under Maryland law to concoct an alternative version of events."
And if an investigation fails to comply with any of the law's provisions, its findings are no longer legally binding, according to the Louisiana statute: "Any discipline, demotion, dismissal, or adverse action of any sort whatsoever taken against a police employee or law enforcement officer without complete compliance with the foregoing minimum standards is an absolute nullity."
A 2007 incident in Shreveport illustrates how this can work in practice. A police officer named Wiley Willis arrested a woman named Angela Garbarino on suspicion of drunk driving. In footage of the incident inside the department's DUI unit, Garbarino can be seen arguing with Willis and attempting to leave the room where she is being held.
After restraining her, Willis walks over to the camera recording the incident and turns it off. When the camera is turned back on, Garbarino is in a pool of her own blood. Garbarino said Willis assaulted her, while lawyers for Willis claimed that she tripped.
Former Shreveport Police Chief Henry Whitehorn called for an internal investigation, which, he told CBS News at the time, "determined that numerous policy violations had occurred." Willis was fired after the incident.
But because a polygraph machine operator involved in the investigation failed to record the results of an interview with Willis, Shreveport's Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board voted to reinstate him. "The board concluded Willis' rights were violated because the polygraph examiner who questioned him during an internal-affairs investigation failed to record the test as required by the Police Officer Bill of Rights," a local ABC News affiliate reported at the time.
Willis resigned from the force after being reinstated. He received nearly $60,000 in backpay.
This piece has been updated to reflect when the officers involved in the shooting were interviewed by internal investigators.