Three police officers were killed and three others injured in a shooting Sunday morning in Baton Rouge, authorities said.
While police offered few immediate details about the exact origins of the incident, they say the violent incident unfolded early Sunday when officers responded to reports of a man carrying a rifle in an area filled with grocery stores and other businesses.
Col. Michael Edmonson of the Louisiana State Police, the agency taking the lead on the investigation, stressed Sunday afternoon that there was no active shooting situation and that police had killed the armed attacker, who died during a shootout with officers.
The attacker in Baton Rouge was identified Sunday afternoon as Gavin Long, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation. Authorities are exploring whether more than one person may have played a role in the incident, according to both officials, who asked not to be identified discussing an ongoing investigation. Sunday was long’s 29th birthday, according to one official.
Two of the officers fatally shot were with the Baton Rouge police force, while the third was part of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office. Another deputy was in critical condition after the shooting, Edmonson said at a briefing.
“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, D, said at the same news conference.
In the hours after the shooting, police had warned people to stay inside as they said they sought two other potential suspects. During an afternoon briefing, authorities said the lone attacker was dead, though they still asked people to remain away from the area where the shooting occurred.
Specific details about the shooting and the attacker remained unclear on Sunday, as officials did not say whether they believe the officers were specifically targeted or ambushed in some way. The shooting happened in a region still on edge after police fatally shot a man there, sparking heated protests that prompted a heavy law enforcement response that some have questioned as unnecessarily forceful.
Edmonson said Sunday that officers were contacted about a man “carrying a weapon, carrying a rifle” at about 8:40 a.m. Police at a convenience store in the area saw the man, who was wearing all black, Edmonson said.
Chaotic moments ensued. Edmonson said shots were reported fired at 8:42 a.m., and at 8:44 a.m., officers were reported down. At 8:45 a.m., more shots were fired. At 8:46, Edmonson said the suspect was reported near a car wash next to a convenience store. At 8:48 a.m., as emergency personnel began staging to treat the wounded, officers engaged the suspect and brought him down, Edmonson said.
“This has happened far too often,” President Barack Obama said in remarks at the White House on Sunday afternoon. “I’ve spent a lot of time with law enforcement this past week. I’m surrounded by the best every single day. And I know whenever this happens, wherever this happens, you feel it.”
The East Baton Rouge Sheriff said one of his deputies was slain — a 45-year-old — and two were wounded — a 41-year-old and a 51-year-old. The 41-year-old, he said, was in critical condition. The Baton Rouge police chief said two of his officers were killed — a 41-year-old with just under a year of service and a 32-year-old with 10 years of service. A 41-year-old Baton Rouge Police Officer with 9 years of service was also shot and wounded, the chief said.
Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden said he had spoken to officials from the White House, who offered to assist in any way possible.
“It’s touched, basically, people all across the country,” he told WAFB in a telephone interview just after noon. “If this is not a defining moment for us, to bridge the divide and come out with a unified voice, than I don’t know what is.”
In a statement, Baton Rouge said that its police force and other local, state and federal authorities were “actively investigating the circumstances surrounding this morning’s shooting.”
Agents for the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene in Baton Rouge responding to the shooting, according to Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She said in a statement that “there is no place in the United States for such appalling violence” and strongly condemned the shooting.
A spokesman for the FBI in New Orleans said he was “unsure” whether the officers were targeted or what might have sparked the incident. He declined to comment further.
But the shooting deaths came during a particularly deadly year for law enforcement, and not long after a gunman who said he was enraged by police killings targeted police in Dallas.
“When a police officer is shot or assaulted, it makes every single citizen in the country a little less safe,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police union. “When police officers have to worry about citizens committing unprovoked acts of violence against them it makes it more difficult for them to interact with citizens and that is a key factor in law enforcement.”
The three deaths Sunday in Baton Rouge brought the total number of officers killed in the line of duty to 30 so far this year — up from about 16 at this point last year. The average mid-year total, according to FBI data, is about 25. The tally this year has spiked significantly in recent days from three incidents just in recent days: Two bailiffs, both deputized by the sheriff there, were killed in a Michigan courthouse last week, not long after five police officers were fatally shot in Dallas.
In May, Edwards signed a “Blue Lives Matter” bill into law, making Louisiana the first state in the country where police officers, firefighters and other first responders are a protected class under hate-crime law. Edwards, the son of a sheriff, said that this was needed because these people “put their lives on the line every day, often under very dangerous circumstances” and deserve this protection.
No other state includes police officers as a protected class under hate-crime laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But at least 37 states – including Louisiana – have enhanced penalties for assaulting police officers. In some states, hurting a police officer can be an “aggravating factor” to an assault or battery charge. Meanwhile, killing a police officer can also be an aggravating factor or circumstance in many states to make a crime eligible for the death penalty.
“I condemn, in the strongest sense of the word, the attack on law enforcement in Baton Rouge,” President Obama said in a statement Sunday afternoon. “For the second time in two weeks, police officers who put their lives on the line for ours every day were doing their job when they were killed in a cowardly and reprehensible assault. These are attacks on public servants, on the rule of law, and on civilized society, and they have to stop.”
Obama said he had offered the federal government’s full support to officials in Louisiana, vowing that “justice will be done.”
Obama noted that it was unclear yet what may have motivated the shooting, he emphatically called it “the work of cowards who speak for no one.” Obama has been criticized in the past for his statements about police, which some commentators and politicians have described as too critical of law enforcement.
Last week, at a town hall meeting on race and policing, Obama was confronted by one such critic — Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R, who has called Obama’s rhetoric on the issue “divisive. Obama rejected the suggestion that he had not been supportive enough of police and said he has been “unequivocal in condemning any rhetoric directed at police officers.”
Obama spoke with Edwards and Holden on Sunday and offered condolences to the families of the officers killed, according to the White House. He also asked to be updated throughout the day about the shooting.
The FBI New Orleans Division sent personnel to the scene to assist.
“At this time, our focus is to help identify and bring to justice those who are responsible for this heinous act,” a spokesman said.
In a video sent to WAFB by someone who said she witnessed the shooting, a woman is heard saying that she saw a man with “a mask on looking like a ninja.” The woman, sounding panicked, said: “He’s about to start popping again. Oh my God!”
Another local woman told The Washington Post that she was playing tennis with her two daughters and her husband when their game was interrupted by gunfire.
The woman, who asked to have her name withheld, was in a park about a mile from the shooting, one she chose because she thought it was located a safe distance from recent unrest. It was a beautiful morning, she said, until the gunfire erupted.
“It sounded like a shootout. After many rounds, we started to hear sirens and saw a police car driving fast down Drusilla Lane and then we got out of there,” she said. She added: “I feel trapped in our own home. I can’t take my kids out and I thought we would be safe here because we are close to a police station.”
Cell phone video allegedly taken as the shooting unfolded and aired by CBS affiliate WAFB shows police vehicles descending on a gas station while gunfire echoes in the background.
Reached by phone, Justin Alford, the owner of the B-Quick Convenience Store on Airline Highway, said he couldn’t comment about the incident at this time.
“Please pray for us,” he said. When asked if he would be able to speak more about the incident later, he said, “I’m not sure. It’s a sad situation.”
Local reports said that police had sent a robot in the store after the gunfire to check for explosives, but Alford said he could not confirm that.
Mark Clements, who lives two blocks behind the nearby Hammond Aire shopping plaza, said he heard 10 to 12 gunshots coming from that direction around 8:40 a.m. He was letting his dogs out in his backyard when he heard the gunfire, followed by sirens and helicopters.
His neighborhood, known as Tara, has been feeling the tension over police shootings since officers fatally shot Alton Sterling earlier this month outside a convenience store.
Sterling’s death, partially captured in videos from the scene that were widely viewed on social media and television, prompted intense protests that stretched for days in Baton Rouge. A day after Sterling was killed, a Minnesota man was fatally shot during a traffic stop, and the following day the gunman in Dallas killed five officers and wounded nine others.
At least 15 people have been demonstrating outside the Baton Rouge police headquarters at most times, Clements said. The largest protest occurred on on July 9, when people lined Airport Highway for a quarter of a mile, carrying signs, singing and chanting. During the protests in the city, more than 100 people were arrested, and demonstrators and activist groups have questioned the aggressive response from police.
In Baton Rouge, police said earlier this week that they responded in that way to protests because they had received a threat to law enforcement officials in the city. According to police, a teenager accused accused of stealing guns during a burglary told investigators that he and others involved were seeking bullets to shoot officers. Police officials said that they felt this threat was credible enough that it shaped their response to protests.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have sued the Baton Rouge police and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office for their response to protests, accusing law enforcement officials of using excessive force during the demonstrations.
“What you saw in the response was because of the very real and viable threats against law enforcement,” East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III said last week. “All I can say beyond that is look what happened in Dallas – a very peaceful protest and then some crazy madman did what he did.”
The shooting Sunday illustrated the dangers facing police officers, said Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, pointing to the Dallas attacks that authorities there had attributed to a lone gunman acting as a sort of sniper.
“Communities and legislators say we don’t want our police to look like warriors, we want them to look like peacekeepers,” Lomax said. “But one element of war is being attacked by snipers. Now they are going to have to be properly equipped and trained to deal with this.
Earlier Sunday, a police officer in Milwaukee was shot multiple times while sitting in his squad car. The officer was on the city’s south side for an investigation into possible domestic violence, and Milwaukee police say the suspect in two incidents of domestic violence that brought officers to the area walked up to the car and began firing.
The Milwaukee officer was taken to a hospital with serious but not life-threatening injuries, and the suspect was found dead after apparently taking his own life not far from the shooting.
In the hours after the shooting in Baton Rouge, dozens of people gathered outside the ambulance entrance at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. Some who arrived Sunday were still wearing their suits and dresses, apparently having headed to the hospital after church services earlier in the day.
One of the only businesses open in the Hammond Aire plaza at the time of the shooting was Albertsons, a grocery store.
About 20 employees and customers were inside when someone came into the store asking what was going on outside. Soon after, police instructed them to not to leave. As of 2 p.m., they were still waiting inside the grocery store.
While employees resumed stocking and cleaning duties, the customers huddled on a bench near the store’s entrance, checking their phones for updates. As it became apparent they wouldn’t be allowed to go home any time soon, employees helped customers put their groceries into coolers to keep the food from spoiling.
State Rep. Denise Marcelle, D, the timing of the shooting is devastating for Baton Rouge, which is still working recover from the most intense protests that unfolded on the city’s streets.
Marcelle, a former Baton Rouge city councilwoman, said that she was in church at Disciples Outreach Ministry in Baton Rouge this morning when the shooting broke out.
“My pastor came up to me and asked me to pray the prayer of peace and unity,” Marcelle said. “I got up and lead the prayer, and that was right around the same time that this incident happened.”
“I’m pretty shaken up that at the same time I was praying for peace someone was killing our officers,” she said. “It has to stop.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Peter Holley, Wesley Lowery, Mark Berman