BATON ROUGE, La. – Authorities in Louisiana have arrested three suspects accused of stealing several handguns as part of an alleged plot to harm police officers in the Baton Rouge area, police said.
The arrests come at a time of heightened tensions after the deadly police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and the killing of five police officers in Dallas last week.
Authorities in Baton Rouge discovered the alleged plot while responding to a weekend burglary at a pawn shop, Baton Rouge police Chief Carl Dabadie said at a news conference Tuesday.
The chief said the first suspect arrested told police that “the reason the burglary was being done was to harm police officers.” He said the suspect 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,” he said.
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All of the suspects are from Baton Rouge and all are black. The suspects face charges including burglary, simple burglary, and theft of a firearm; they have not been arrested on any charges related to plotting to kill police.
State Police Col. Mike Edmonson called it a “substantial, credible threat” to police.
Six of the eight stolen firearms have been recovered and two are still at large, authorities said.
In a statement, police said surveillance video showed the suspects using a ladder to climb the roof of the building to get in early Saturday. Eight handguns and one airsoft BB gun were missing from the store.
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Authorities said they arrested one suspect – Antonio Thomas, 17 – at the scene with a handgun and a BB gun. Another suspect, Malik Bridgewater, 20, was apprehended Sunday and a third suspect – a 13-year-old boy – was apprehended on a street. They called on the fourth suspect to turn himself in. Another man was arrested for allegedly purchasing two of the stolen guns, but he hasn’t been linked to the alleged plot, a police spokesman said.
It wasn’t immediately known if they had attorneys.
A week after 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed by two white police officers in Baton Rouge outside a convenience store, tension are high in Louisiana’s capital city. While protesters demand justice for Sterling, the shootings in Dallas last week and other attacks on police around the country have put police on edge.
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In Baton Rouge, the police department has come under criticism for the tactics it’s used with protesters since, sending riot police and military-style vehicles into the streets. Over a three day period, police arrested about 200 protesters.
Earlier Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards defended the police response to protesters. He said 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,” the Democratic governor said.
“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?” he added.
Protests have spread around the country as people express outrage over the recent death in Baton Rouge and of a second black man, Philando Castile, at the hands of police in Minnesota last week. The Justice Department has opened a federal civil rights investigation into Sterling’s shooting.
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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 tensions escalated during weekend protests that moved away from the store and into other areas of the city, marked by a show of force by law enforcement that included police wielding batons, carrying long guns and wearing shields.
Community leaders in Baton Rouge have sought to defuse the tension.
State Rep. Ted James, a black lawyer who grew up near where Sterling was shot, and Cleve Dunn Jr., a prominent black businessman, met with local Republican leaders at a public luncheon to discuss the shooting. The two men also have showed 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,” James said.
Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau contributed to this report.