Wednesday 25 April 2018

Three held over 'credible threat' to harm Louisiana police

Antonio Thomas, 17, was arrested at the scene with a handgun and a BB gun (East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office/AP)
Antonio Thomas, 17, was arrested at the scene with a handgun and a BB gun (East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office/AP)

Police in Louisiana have arrested three people and are seeking a possible fourth suspect accused of stealing several handguns in what authorities said was a "substantial, credible threat" to harm officers in the Baton Rouge area.

The arrests come at a time of heightened tensions after the fatal shootings by police of black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, last week.

Authorities in Baton Rouge discovered the alleged plot while responding to a burglary at a pawn shop early on Saturday morning, Baton Rouge police chief Carl Dabadie said.

He said the first suspect arrested told police that "the reason the burglary was being done was to harm police officers".

"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," he said.

The police department has come under criticism for its tactics to deal with protesters, using riot officers and military-style vehicles on the streets of the state capital. Over a three-day period about 200 protesters were arrested.

Police said surveillance video showed the suspects using a ladder to climb the roof of the pawn shop. Eight handguns and one airsoft BB gun were missing from the store.

Authorities said they arrested Antonio Thomas, 17, at the scene with a handgun and a BB gun. Malik Bridgewater, 20, was arrested on Sunday and a third suspect, a 13-year-old boy, was detained in a street.

Police have called on the fourth suspect to turn himself in. Another man was arrested for allegedly buying two of the stolen guns, but he has not been linked to the plot, a police spokesman said.

All of the suspects are from Baton Rouge and all are black. They face charges including burglary, simple burglary, and theft of a firearm, but have not been arrested on any charges related to plotting to kill police.

State police colonel Mike Edmonson called it a "substantial, credible threat" to officers. Six of the eight stolen firearms have been recovered and two are still at large, authorities said.

Tension is high in Baton Rouge, a week after 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot dead by two white police officers outside a convenience store. While protesters demand justice for Mr Sterling, the shootings in Dallas last week and other attacks on police around the country have put the officers on edge.

Earlier on Tuesday, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards defended the police response to protesters rallying against the shooting, saying that the riot gear and weaponry was appropriate.

"We've had a police officer with teeth knocked out of his face because of a rock. If you don't have on riot gear, you have no defence against that sort of thing," said the Democratic governor, who comes from a family of sheriffs.

"In light of what happened in Dallas, understanding that just one gunman can change the situation entirely, how do you in good conscience put police officers on the street without the ability to defend themselves?"

Protests have spread across the US as people express outrage over the death in Baton Rouge and that of a second black man, Philando Castile, at the hands of police in Minnesota last week. The US Justice Department has opened a federal civil rights investigation into Mr Sterling's shooting.

In the first few days after Mr Sterling's death, police took a reserved approach to enforcement, keeping a low profile as hundreds gathered outside the store where he died.

But tensions escalated at weekend protests that moved away from the store and into other areas of the city, with nearly 200 people arrested and a show of force from law enforcement that included police wielding batons, armed with long guns and wearing shields.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has criticised police as using "violent, militarised tactics on groups of people who have gathered peacefully" and Amnesty International has questioned the high number of arrests.

Community leaders have tried to defuse tension and keep interactions between protesters and law enforcement calm.

State congressman Ted James, a black lawyer who grew up in the area where Mr Sterling was shot, and Cleve Dunn, a prominent black businessman in Baton Rouge, met local Republican leaders at a public lunch to discuss the shooting. The two men have also turned up at protests and urged calm.

"I truly believe that we can have parallel conversations about respect for police officers, making sure that they're safe, but also have a parallel conversation about the things that are happening with African-American males across the country," Mr James said.


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