Within weeks of being fired, former Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White found himself on the other side of the badge, as his former colleagues investigated his missing city-parish cellphone.
Detectives closed the case without charges, citing a lack of evidence after it was learned White had given the phone to his attorney. But in the wake of the inquiry, some experts and Metro Council members have questioned the propriety of the Baton Rouge Police Department investigating White in light of the turmoil that accompanied his termination.
Peter L. Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University who has written about law enforcement integrity, said soliciting the perspective of an outside agency like the State Police is essential in criminal investigations involving command officers.
“The police culture of organizations such as BRPD is so strong that it’s difficult to view conduct by a senior officer such as a chief with any objectivity through a lens other than that of the organizational culture,” Scharf said. “How does any investigator separate (his) relationship with a chief — such as a failure to gain promotion — from duties involving an investigation of the chief?”
Mayor-President Kip Holden fired White in February, accusing him, among other things, of showing favoritism to a hire, making inappropriate transfers and failing to discipline an officer who lied under oath. Holden’s decision followed a heated hearing in the Metro Council chambers in which White defended his tenure and aired accusations of his own against Holden.
To avoid the specter of a conflict of interest, the Police Department could have called on a number of outside agencies to handle the criminal investigation into White’s missing cellphone, said Rafael Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in New Orleans.
“If any of the people that were involved in the investigation were at any point in time disciplined by the former chief, there would be a possible defense that this investigator had an ax to grind and therefore can’t be fair and impartial and may have done something inappropriate,” Goyeneche said. “It’s not a very complicated case, but because of the history and the acrimonious relationship between the chief and some people in the department, to remove any claims of retaliation or inappropriate conduct, it would probably be prudent to refer the matter to an outside agency.”
Police opened the investigation after trying repeatedly to recover White’s departmental cellphone after he was fired Feb. 18. The former chief told officers who confronted him at his home that he had never been issued a phone, court records show, a claim contradicted by a wireless device use policy White signed upon receiving his phone.
While city-parish officials said they only wanted to recover property unaccounted for, White’s attorney, Jill Craft, has accused them of using the investigation to embarrass White. Detective Cleveland “Mack” Thomas concluded in his investigation that White had resisted returning the phone to conceal an extramarital affair, according to a police report released last week.
“Obviously it was some sort of vendetta, and that’s why you don’t use police resources internally to basically investigate crimes against your own people,” Craft said. “It leaves you far too open to criticism and being able to file motions in the criminal proceedings claiming bias in the investigation.”
Lt. Don Kelly, a Baton Rouge police spokesman, declined to discuss details of the White case. In general, he said, it is “standard procedure for area law enforcement agencies, especially the larger ones with lots of resources, to conduct their own investigations regardless of whether their employees or former employees are involved.”
“Over the years, unfortunately, we have had to investigate and arrest many of our own employees, and they have been successfully tried and convicted,” Kelly said. “To the best of my knowledge, we have never had a prosecutor or a judge question the propriety of us investigating our own.”
The Police Department is also investigating an officer-involved shooting that happened last week in which Bradford Etheredge, 37, was fatally shot after he stabbed two officers.
“We believe our detectives are as well-trained and experienced as any in the state, if not the country, and are professional enough to be fair and unbiased,” Kelly said. “Frankly, there’s not an outside agency we could call in who would do a better investigation than our own people.”
While Goyeneche pointed to the potential appearance of a conflict in the Police Department handling White’s case, he has no reservations in general with law enforcement agencies investigating their own employees, be it an administrative violation handled through internal affairs or a case that leads to criminal charges.
“If the Police Department can police the city or their jurisdiction, then they should be able to police themselves,” Goyeneche said.
Greg Phares, a former Baton Rouge police chief, said he generally favors agencies investigating their own members as long as the agency has the technical expertise and “absolute integrity” at the top. “The investigation must be done for the sole purpose of determining the truth of whatever is in question,” he added.
Some law enforcement agencies, particularly smaller ones, take a different approach to officer-involved shootings and criminal investigations involving their own officers.
“If it’s something we perceive as a conflict, we want an independent eye and someone who doesn’t have any skin in the game who can render professional judgment,” Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack said.
Even in agencies as large as the Baton Rouge Police Department, Waguespack said, “you still tend to know everybody. You could be investigating somebody you went to the academy with.”
State Police assist agencies around the state but handle almost all criminal cases that involve their own employees, said Capt. Doug Cain. State Police recently arrested an 18-year veteran of the agency in Monroe who was accused of distributing cocaine.
Cain said his agency is large enough that potential conflicts can be avoided by having investigations handled by officers who don’t know or are unfamiliar with the person who is the target. Larger agencies “are probably going to handle it much like we do,” he added.
Metro Councilman Chandler Loupe said he has concerns about the Police Department handling the White case, noting the former chief may still sue the city-parish over his termination.
“This whole thing stinks,” Loupe said, adding he plans at a future council meeting to “get to the bottom” of who ordered the criminal investigation.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said an outside agency should have been called upon to handle the White case.
But Councilman John Delgado said the investigation by the Police Department was “perfectly appropriate.”
If officers “took White at his word” when he denied ever having the cellphone, he said, there were no grounds to immediately ask an outside agency to investigate the theft.
“You can’t Monday-morning quarterback these things,” Delgado said. “It’s not fair to the officers.”