The Baton Rouge police officer who resigned after his racist text messages surfaced last month was subsequently allowed to alter his departure paperwork to say he retired — an action several Metro Council members said was too generous for someone guilty of such an egregious act.
The personnel issue took center stage Wednesday at an emotional Metro Council meeting during which council members said the police chief should have sent a stronger message by firing Michael Elsbury rather than letting him retire.
Elsbury resigned early last month after his offensive texts were published in the news media and turned over to police administrators.
Part of one text reads: “I wish someone would pull a Ferguson on them and take them out. I hate looking at those African monkeys at work … I enjoy arresting those thugs with their saggy pants.” Another text says: “They are nothing but a bunch of monkeys.”
After submitting his letter of resignation, Elsbury requested he be allowed to alter it to say he retired, which was permitted.
The change raised eyebrows, particularly with the councilwomen who represent large minority constituencies. They said the soft exit paves the way for Elsbury to potentially find another job in law enforcement.
“I don’t want him at any police department in the United States of America,” Councilwoman Tara Wicker said. “He just needs to find another line of work.”
Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said Elsbury was allowed to change his resignation to a retirement because it has been a common practice extended to other officers who had left the department after inappropriate incidents.
Elsbury had clocked 14 years with the department and is vested with the retirement system. He will be eligible to collect a pension when he turns 55.
Kathy Bourque, director of the Municipal Police Employees Retirement System, said regardless of whether Elsbury resigned, retired or was terminated, he is still eligible to receive his retirement benefits. She noted that even convicted criminals who are vested into the retirement system are eligible for their pension.
“We send benefit checks to prison,” Bourque told the council.
Council members also pressed the chief about why Elsbury was given the option to resign in the first place, rather than be terminated immediately. They said Elsbury should be punished with the stigma of being fired.
“I don’t think he should be in a position to negotiate at all,” Wicker said.
Dabadie told the council that accepting Elsbury’s resignation was the most expedient way to remove him from the force and get him off the payroll. Firing Elsbury would have opened the door for a lengthy appeals process via the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, which could have reinstated him. Elsbury could also have appealed by suing in state district court.
Councilman John Delgado said Elsbury’s professional fate is likely already sealed because of media coverage. A Google search of Elsbury’s name brings up a litany of stories about his recent bad behavior, Delgado said.
The debate attracted a few members of the public who told the council that Elsbury’s behavior was deepening a stark racial divide in the community and a distrust of police officers among black residents.
Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed, a community activist and former gang member, dramatically pulled a noose out of a bag, and told the council that black residents have grown fearful of the police.
Mayor-President Kip Holden came to the defense of the Police Department, but noted: “We abhor the language used by that officer.”
“These officers aren’t out here trying to kill every black person, that’s nonsense,” Holden said. “Every police officer is not a crook. Are mistakes made? Yes. But we all make mistakes.”
Earlier in the meeting, Dabadie and the Mayor’s Office committed to the council that they will seek funding to purchase about 400 body cameras for police officers to wear.
Dabadie said funding could come from a combination of grant funding, in-house funds or additional allocations in the 2015 budget.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said in light of Elsbury’s text messages, which have cast a shadow on police interactions with minorities, the cameras are particularly urgent.
Councilman Buddy Amoroso noted the cameras would protect the police officers from false claims of excessive force.
“Anytime you have a ‘he said, she said, they said’ situation, there’s one version of the truth, another version of the truth, and then somewhere in the middle the truth lies,” Amoroso said. “Cameras would document exactly what goes on.”
The Metro Council also extended a 2 percent sales tax rebate for the Bayou Country Superfest for five more years. Two years ago, the state Legislature passed a law allowing for the rebate of local sales taxes paid on tickets and parking for the Memorial Day weekend country music event at Tiger Stadium.
Extending the rebate gives the city negotiating power while trying to secure the festival as a Baton Rouge fixture for years to come, tourism officials have said.
In 2014, the festival producers earned $207,000 in tax rebates that would have otherwise gone to the city-parish budget.
Visit Baton Rouge Executive Director Paul Arrigo said the event has an economic impact of about $30 million, which he considers a worthwhile investment.