Baton Rouge police unit

A Baton Rouge police unit shown May 22, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

A Baton Rouge police officer has been suspended amid allegations he sent a racially charged image to a group of colleagues who had been exchanging text messages about a recent protest following the decision by the U.S. Justice Department not to pursue civil-rights charges in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling.

The officer, Blaine Dupuy, a nearly three-year veteran of the force, was placed on administrative leave Thursday after department brass received a written complaint about the image.  

"It was definitely inappropriate," Police Chief Carl Dabadie said. "He was placed on leave the day it hit my desk. We're going to handle it the way we would anything else." 

The police chief did not elaborate on the text exchange, citing an internal investigation. But a law enforcement official familiar with the matter said the image depicted a chimpanzee and the phrase "chimp out," allegedly in reference to the Sterling protesters, many of whom were black.

The online Urban Dictionary defines "chimping out" as a slur describing "when a black person removes his/her facade as a civilized human being and releases his/her inner chimp; as in to start acting violent and out of control."

Dupuy is white. The text exchange, a regular form of communication for officers on his squad, included black recipients, though it's unclear how many, said the law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome issued a statement late Monday saying Dabadie "has informed me of this incident, and I find it appalling. I agree with disciplinary action, including termination."  

Dupuy was placed on leave for potential administrative violations of "command of temper" and "conduct unbecoming an officer," said Lt. Jonny Dunnam, a Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman. "We don't discuss administrative investigations publicly," Dunnam said. "They're extremely confidential." 

Dupuy could not be reached for comment Monday, and it was not clear whether he has an attorney. Sgt. C. Bryan Taylor, the president of the Baton Rouge police union, did not return calls seeking comment. 

The text exchange is the latest controversy for a Police Department that has been no stranger to racial conflict in recent years. The agency still is recovering from the fallout from Sterling's death last summer, a shooting that involved two white police officers who were investigated for — though ultimately not charged with — civil rights violations in Sterling's death.

That announcement prompted a new round of demonstrations earlier this month and fresh calls for police reform in Baton Rouge. The officers in Dupuy's squad had been discussing one such protest when Dupuy sent the image in question, the law enforcement official said. At least one of the officers included in the text exchange complained about the image, known as a GIF. 

The episode is reminiscent of a controversy in 2014 in which another Baton Rouge police officer, Michael Elsbury, resigned from the department after racist text messages he authored surfaced in the news media, including one in which he wrote, "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."

The Elsbury case drew intense criticism from several members of the public, who told Metro Council members at that time the text messages had deepened a racial divide in Baton Rouge and distrust of the police among black residents. 

In the wake of Sterling's death, which prompted a number of police reforms, several faith-based community leaders also have brought new attention to city's failure to comply with a decades-old consent decree that had been intended to diversify the Baton Rouge Police Department. The agency remains 67 percent white, while the city's population is approximately 55 percent black. 

"It's already a tough climate and for you to do something like this, it's a travesty," said state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, who called for Dupuy to be fired. "We can't tolerate this." 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.