Last month, after being notified that personal correspondence in the government email accounts of two current Baton Rouge police officers contained racial slurs, Chief Murphy Paul required they both attend diversity training, according to civil rights attorneys Thomas Frampton and William Most.
Frampton is currently a Lecturer of Law at Harvard Law School and had previously worked for the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office. Most is the owner of a small public interest law firm in New Orleans and has quickly established himself as a prominent civil rights watchdog in a state in which there is never a short supply of work. During the past four years, he has been involved in several high-profile cases, including representing Glenn Ford in two civil cases following his release from Angola.
Although this particular records request was not related to any pending litigation, Most is currently representing thirteen activists and two journalists who allege the Baton Rouge Police Department violated their rights through a series of actions, including the use of excessive force, during public protests held in the aftermath of the shooting death of Alton Sterling.
“Baton Rouge, we are sorry,” Chief Paul said at a press conference in late July. “I want to apologize to the family of Alton Sterling and his family because (Blane Salamoni) (the officer who fatally wounded Sterling) never should have been hired. Although we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear we need to change the future.”
Earlier this year, in February, Chief Paul also issued a public apology after photographs from 1993 of two officers in blackface resurfaced; the officers apparently were participating in an undercover investigation, dressing in blackface in order to impersonate drug dealers in a majority-minority neighborhood. The story made national news, and the picture had first appeared in a police yearbook. As of February, both men were still employed by the police department.
Both sets of emails are from four and five years ago and had been otherwise either unknown or neglected by the department, which has been led by Chief Paul since March 2018. Paul had been unaware of the correspondence until Frampton and Most directed his attention to them in July.
“We appreciate and respect Chief Paul’s statement of how seriously he takes this issue,” Most said, “and we hope that this sparks a deeper investigation into Louisiana law enforcement.”
The Bayou Brief has agreed not to disclose the names of the two officers at the request of Frampton and Most, who provided copies of the documents with names and email addresses redacted. We can confirm, however, they are both white, and that racial slurs in the second set of emails were written by an officer formerly employed with the Denham Springs Police Department. The former officer does not and has never before worked for the Baton Rouge Police Department.
The Bayou Brief has not made any additional redactions and has elected to not to censor the offensive language at issue.
The first email was sent six days after Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri was killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, sparking a sustained protest that received international news coverage and amplified the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. The full context of the email exchange was not provided, but the Baton Rouge officer had been communicating with a Sergeant First Class in the US Army, presumably about missing out on a job opportunity.
Three weeks later, a different Baton Rouge police officer resigned from the force after a string of racist texts became public. Those texts specifically mentioned Michael Brown and the situation in Ferguson.
The second set of emails is an exchange between a former officer at the Denham Springs Police Department and an officer who remains with the Baton Rouge Police Department. While the Baton Rouge officer did not use any racial slurs, it appears there was no effort made to dispute the sender’s characterizations.
According to a press release from Frampton and Most, the two attorneys who requested these documents, Most decided to bring them to Chief Paul’s attention.
“Then-Chief Dabadie stated publicly that there was no need to determine the extent of similar attitudes among other BRPD officers, because the issue was confined to the lone officer,” the press release points out. “These emails suggest otherwise.”
In early August, Paul informed Most of the decision to send them to a course about “dehumanization” taught by Dr. Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant, an acclaimed African-American scholar and educator whose work primarily concentrates on policies that improve educational outcomes for minority children and youth living in economically distressed communities.
“We appreciate that the chief took this seriously, particularly that he selected a legitimate, rigorous course taught by an expert on the subject,” Most said.
Paul’s work on reconciliation has been widely praised in Baton Rouge, a city that was once at the epicenter of the struggle for civil rights. The very first bus boycott in the country occurred in Baton Rouge in 1953, two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and inspired a bus boycott, this time in Montgomery, which is widely considered to be the movement’s “seminal moment.”
In recent years, Louisiana’s capital city, which remains largely segregated by race, has been beleaguered by a powerful but incompetent police union and a law enforcement culture that concentrates resources in majority black neighborhoods, resulting in massive inequities in the enforcement of low-level drug crimes, according to an analysis by the organization Together Baton Rouge.
Following the tragic death of Alton Sterling, whose final moments were captured by multiple cameras, thousands of people assembled for a series of peaceful protests. Many believe the police response was overly aggressive and disproportionate, rounding up dozens of protestors and journalists, including well-known Black Lives Matter advocate DeRay Mckesson. It was subsequently alleged that several arrest reports appear to have been filled out in advance.
Only two days after Sterling’s funeral, Gavin Eugene Long, a decorated former Marine and a self-identified “Black Separatist” who is believed to have suffered from PTSD, staged an ambush near the Hammond Aire Plaza on Airline Highway, killing three officers and wounding three others. The ambush re-traumatized an already fragile city. One of the wounded officers sued DeRay Mckesson and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Chief Paul inherited this, and thus far, he has proven himself to be a responsible and responsive leader. But the discovery of more racist content from officers currently on the force begs a series of uncomfortable questions about if there are still more documents that have yet to be disclosed and about whether these officers could have compromised any previous cases.
“The East Baton Rouge District Attorney should have a plan in place to notify criminal defendants and their attorneys,” said Frampton. “These sorts of emails call into question the credibility of the cases these officers have worked on.”