BATON ROUGE, La. – Civil rights groups and activists sued Baton Rouge law enforcement agencies over their treatment of protesters rallying against the police shooting death of a black man, saying officers used excessive force and physically and verbally abused peaceful demonstrators.
The lawsuit, announced Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, came hours after Cameron Sterling, the 15-year-old son of the slain man spoke publicly for the first time, calling for peaceful protests following the death of his father, 37-year-old Alton Sterling.
Sterling was shot to death July 5 as two white officers pinned him to the pavement outside a convenience store. The killing was captured on cellphone video and circulated widely on the internet, sparking widespread demonstrations across the capital city.
Authorities arrested about 200 protesters over a three-day period, often taking to the streets in riot gear or riding in military-style vehicles. The arrests came amid heightened tensions in the city following Sterling's death, a deadly police shooting in Minnesota and the killings of five police officers in Dallas.
The governor and the Baton Rouge police chief have defended the response, with the chief saying Tuesday that authorities discovered an alleged plot against police over the weekend. Authorities said they found out about the plot after they arrested three suspects in the burglary of eight guns from a pawn shop.
The chief said one of the suspects said the burglary was carried out "to harm police officers," but he didn't give any details about when or where a possible plot would be carried out.
"We have been questioned repeatedly over the last several days about our show of force and why we have the tactics that we have. Well, this is the reason, because we had credible threats against the lives of law enforcement in this city," Police Chief Carl Dabadie said.
The lawsuit, which names Baton Rouge police as well as other agencies, blames law enforcement for escalating the situation. Members of the five organizations that filed the suit either took part in the demonstrations or observed them.
"Plaintiffs have engaged in this peaceful speech, association, and protest on the streets, sidewalks, and medians of Baton Rouge," the lawsuit read. "Unfortunately, this exercise of constitutional rights has been met with a military-grade assault on protestors' bodies and rights."
Among the allegations:
— Law enforcement officers gave contradictory and confusing orders to protesters and then arrested them when they didn't comply.
— Demonstrators were arrested for obstruction for stepping foot on any paved surface adjacent to the road, even if they didn't obstruct anything.
— Authorities used "unconstitutional levels of force, including physically tackling nonviolent demonstrators and use mace, taser charges, and/or pepper spray on nonviolent protesters."
— People in jail said they were Maced or pepper-sprayed for making comments or singing protest songs.
A spokesman for the police said they do not comment on pending litigation and the state police said they were still reviewing the suit. The sheriff's department did not respond to a request for comment.
Authorities have said that they have worked with demonstrators in many cases to allow them to protest peacefully, even blocking streets to traffic. But they have defended actions taken to keep demonstrators off a main artery in front of the police department and off the interstate. They also say they have recovered some weapons from protesters, and the governor said one police officer had his teeth knocked out because of a rock.
Alton Sterling's son spoke of the protests while addressing reporters Wednesday morning. Calling his father a good man, he urged protesters not to resort to violence.
"I feel that people in general, no matter what their race is, should come together as one united family," Cameron Sterling told reporters outside the store where his father died. The teen remained composed as he spoke, a contrast from a week ago when he broke down in sobs and had to be led away as his mother talked in front of television cameras about his father's death.
In the first few days after Sterling's death, police took a reserved approach to enforcement, keeping a low profile as hundreds gathered outside the convenience store where Sterling died.
But protests escalated during the weekend as demonstrations moved away from the store and into other parts of the city, marked by a show of force by law enforcement that included police wielding batons, carrying long guns and wearing shields.
The Justice Department opened a federal investigation into Sterling's death, but Justin Bamberg, an attorney for Cameron and his mother, Quinyetta McMillon, said the family also hopes state Attorney General Jeff Landry's office "one day" will get involved.
Landry said in a statement Monday he won't have access to details of the federal investigation until it's completed and a decision has been made on potential federal charges.