BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Police arrested three suspects and were seeking a possible fourth suspect accused of stealing several handguns as part of what authorities Tuesday described as "substantial, credible threat" to harm police officers in the Baton Rouge area.
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 burglary at a pawn shop early Saturday morning, Baton Rouge police Chief Carl Dabadie said in a press conference. 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.
The police department has come under criticism for the tactics it's employed to deal with protesters, using riot police and military-style vehicles on the streets of the capital city. Over a three day period, police arrested about 200 protesters.
In a statement, police said surveillance video showed the suspects using a ladder to climb the roof of the building to get in. Eight handguns and one airsoft BB gun were missing from the store.
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-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.
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.
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 the city. While protesters demand justice for Sterling, the shootings in Dallas last week and other attacks on police around the country have put the police on edge.
Earlier Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards defended the police response to protesters rallying against the shooting death of a black man by white officers, saying Tuesday 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 defense 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?" he said.
After nearly a week of protests over the killing of Alton Sterling, Baton Rouge officers, state police and other law enforcement agencies have received criticism for their methods of dealing with demonstrators.
Protests have spread across 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.
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 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 criticized police as using "violent, militarized tactics on groups of people who have gathered peacefully." 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 Rep. Ted James, a black lawyer who grew up in the area where Sterling was shot, and Cleve Dunn Jr., a prominent black businessman in Baton Rouge, met with local Republican leaders at a public luncheon to discuss the shooting. The two men 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.
James said black community leaders want Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to appoint a special prosecutor to handle any state investigation into Sterling's shooting death. He said the attorney general's office doesn't have the level of expertise to do the investigation and the appointment of an outside prosecutor would depoliticize the work.