In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina forced thousands of people to seek refuge in Baton Rouge, out-of-state law enforcement officers volunteering here said they saw such outlandish violations of civil rights by local cops that they eventually refused to work with police in the capital city.
More than a decade later, the killing of a 37-year-old man by an officer thrust the city into a tense national debate about law enforcement and race, forcing many in Baton Rouge to question how far the police department has come in improving its relations with the black community.
The details of the slaying of Alton Sterling, the third killing by officers or sheriff's deputies in the parish this year, fit the outlines of what some feel is a familiar story: a black man shot while being wrestled down by two white officers on the neglected side of Florida Boulevard, a street that one councilwoman calls Baton Rouge's "Mason-Dixon line."
Sixteen people have been killed by law enforcement agencies in East Baton Rouge Parish since Katrina, all but two of them black men, according to data compiled by the website Fatal Encounters and analyzed by The Advocate.
In the Sterling case, the public saw cellphone video of the July 5th killing within 24 hours. And this time a painful sequence of events unfolded, as another black man was shot dead by an officer in Minnesota the next day, five officers were slain in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter rally after that, and soon, protesters here met face-to-face with local officers in military-style gear, captured in images published worldwide.
Many black civic leaders say the shooting, now under federal investigation, and its aftermath should force the BRPD and city officials to take a hard look at the relationship between police and the communities they serve. In a city that's 55 percent black, the police department is 67 percent white, which makes it one of the least representative big city departments in the country. The agency remains under a federal consent decree originally inked in 1980 to diversify its force.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. defended his department and noted that police across the country face similar challenges.
"We've been fighting this battle for the last three years, when I came in," he said. "Community tensions were high. I think every agency in the country is dealing with the same issues, to bridge the gaps in the community"
Dabadie emphasized he has six officers working full time in the community relations division. On top of that, he said, each district is encouraged to "adopt" areas of their beats, like schools or community centers, as a way of focusing their neighborhood efforts. Officers are involved in summer camps and Halloween events, in addition to everyday acts like playing basketball with youngsters.
To deepen those efforts would take a bigger police force, Dabadie said.
"Officers used to walk a beat and that's the only beat ever walked, and they knew everybody in that beat. The problem we have right now is we're spread out," he said. "We just don't have the manpower to police that way."
After the storm
In the days after Katrina, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden famously warned against any "thugs" coming to his city.
“We do not want to inherit the looting and all the other foolishness that went on in New Orleans,” he said.
During a 2015 interview, the mayor walked back that statement, saying he was talking about looters he saw on TV in New Orleans, not people in Baton Rouge.
Still, some visiting police officers who helped patrol the streets in Baton Rouge after the post-Katrina crisis saw the parish population explode reported that local officers said they had orders to make life difficult for New Orleanians here.
[FLASHBACK: A look back at The Advocate's coverage of the Baton Rouge Police Department's handling of claims that some of its officers routinely mistreated black people in the days after Hurricane Katrina]
Michigan and New Mexico state troopers also had broader complaints about the Baton Rouge police. The agencies pulled out quickly and filed 12 separate complaints alleging cruel behavior by local lawmen.
The troopers, who affixed their own names to their reports, said local police repeatedly hassled black people, kicked down doors without warrants, roughed up people who posed no risk, and in one case offered to let a visiting trooper beat an inmate as a thank-you gift.
It took four years of litigation and nearly $70,000 for The Advocate to obtain the Baton Rouge Police Department's files of the complaints and the resulting investigations of the post-Katrina allegations by the troopers. Though most of its fee eventually was paid by the city because the Advocate was successful with its lawsuit, the newspaper had said the difficulty in accessing the public records highlighted secrecy in the police department.
"Sometime during the night shift, our troopers were exposed to situations where, if they were to occur in Michigan, (they) would rise to the level of misconduct in our department," Anthony Gomez, then a major in the Michigan State Police who supervised the troopers in Louisiana, told The Advocate in 2005.
None of the out-of-state policemen who filed complaints spoke to The Advocate at the time.
But this past week, one of the Michigan state troopers, now retired, said he stands by his complaint, maintaining he witnessed people being pushed around and arrested with excessive force.
"If that was this (officer) trying to show off in front of us that he could handle his business, well, unfortunately...that doesn't show me anything more than an officer that doesn't know how to do his job," Adam Ladd said.
Ladd added he and the other troopers, who worked separately with different Baton Rouge Police officers, were moved to make the complaints because so many of them were so quickly and collectively stunned by what they'd seen.
Other complaints included a visiting trooper's allegation that he saw Baton Rouge officers spraying mace into a crowd, without warning, to force people to leave a bar at night. One alleged he saw a local officer kicking a child to urge the juvenile to put his face into the ground, prompting the youngster to cry, "I can't breathe."
Ladd cautioned, however, that the misconduct he witnessed over 10 years ago doesn't necessarily mean officers here still act the same way. And he emphasized that lawmen have dangerous jobs that few are willing to do.
"So many times police are thought of as robots," he said. "In most places, they barely make enough money. Well, they're supposed to be superhuman on top of it?"
Ladd, who's worked on violent crime units in Detroit, said sometimes using force is justified when dealing with risky situations.
He stands on his career record in vowing that the misconduct he witnessed was serious and was real, Ladd said, noting that his position as an out-of-state trooper may have made him feel more free to speak about the abuse than a local law enforcement officer.
Several other New Mexico and Michigan state troopers who'd made allegations against the Baton Rouge Police Department did not respond to recent requests for comment.
After the complaints went public, Baton Rouge police brass and union officials played down the allegations, saying the complaints dealt with internal policy violations, not criminal wrongdoing.
“Did some officers give us black eyes? Yes. Yes. And they received punishment,” said Jeff LeDuff, then police chief, to The Advocate in 2006. “Did some officers stumble? Yes. But wholesalely, the men and women of the Baton Rouge Police Department remain committed, they remain diligent, and we’re not facing the problems of some of the cities to our east and to our west.”
Dabadie said he wasn't chief during the Katrina aftermath and that he couldn't speak about the complaints, but noted that he understood the department was cleared by at least one outside investigation.
The post-Katrina matter ended after the U.S. Department of Justice closed a review of the case without revealing anything about its probe. The department said the closure exonerated the accused officers. One officer was suspended for three days, another was reprimanded, and three were given counseling.
In the years since then, the department has periodically been in the spotlight on other allegations of excessive force. Just this spring, a white Baton Rouge officer was captured on video punching a black teenager at an Earth Day event. Police announced they were investigating a sergeant, who is awaiting his "pre-disciplinary hearing," a spokesman said.
In May, a man won a brutality case against the agency in a federal jury trial in which a judge also said the department appeared to have a practice of conducting warrantless strip-searches. The Baton Rouge Police Department said it would revisit its policies after that finding.
The Baton Rouge Police Department has cycled through three chiefs since the post-Katrina controversy, but it's served one mayor throughout.
Holden, who took office in 2005, is East Baton Rouge's first black mayor, elected with the support of the local police union.
Since Sterling's death Holden's been criticized for being absent from the majority of public events related to Sterling's death. In one earlier police-related scandal he fired one of his police chiefs without giving an official reason, but that chief notably had made comments about race and policing.
Dewayne White provided an unusual voice as a white police leader who openly acknowledged the racial divide in the city.
"When the question is raised, with an African-American congregation or a constituency, whether they trust the Police Department, no one raises their hand," White said in a WJBO interview in 2011. "That, in itself, is indicative of a problem, and we have got to win the trust."
White, now an investigator with the State Police gaming division in Shreveport, did not respond to calls for comment.
Though half a dozen public officials and local leaders say they remember when records were released in 2010 about alleged problems in the Baton Rouge Police Department after Katrina, they mostly say they cannot remember any substantial changes being made afterward. In fact, they say the department has either been stagnant or taken steps backward with race relations between 2005 and today.
Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, state Rep. Ted James, NAACP President Mike McClanahan and the Rev. Dale Flowers all said in separate interviews that they believe the Baton Rouge Police Department has only a small minority of racist officers, but that those few may have tainted the department. One bad experience with the police can leave emotional scars and worries that linger for lifetimes, they say.
"We should have taken that seriously, these are not just people on the streets, these are law enforcement officers," Marcelle said about the complaints against Baton Rouge police after Katrina.
The leaders also say community policing is one of the answers for the police department trying to chart its next course. Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination, an anti-crime initiative launched a few years ago that focuses on rehabilitating certain youths prone to crime, is not enough, they say.
Wicker remembered two police officers in the 1990s who regularly walked a beat in north Baton Rouge's Zion City neighborhood. One baked with the children there, and another played sports with them.
"When they walked into Zion City, the people there knew them not as police but as part of the neighborhood," she said.
Wicker said she now sees fewer police officers building relationships in neighborhoods, and that the perceived shift has hurt the department's credibility with the black community.
Dabadie agreed that the police department's thinly-spread officers do not have the time to do beat policing like agencies long ago might have.
"If the community policing was working, then the police would have known him," Marcelle said of Sterling. "They would have known him as the CD guy. They would have gotten out of their car and said, hey how you doing Alton, we got a call, we need to check it out, instead of getting out of their car aggressively."
Marcelle also said that part of community policing is having officers who look like and come from the same neighborhoods they are patrolling -- something not true for the two officers involved in the Sterling shooting, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II. That has been a long struggle for BRPD, which still operates under a decades-old federal consent decree that it must diversify its officers.
While progress has been made in recruiting more black officers, the agency still lags behind departments nationally.
Baton Rouge ranked 14th among large U.S. cities in terms of the gap between the number of officers of color and the city's population as a whole, according to an analysis by Brookings Institution, which used 2013 data compiled by Governing Magazine. The researchers with Brookings, a national public policy research group, noted the Baton Rouge department's "deep demographic divide" compared to the police force in New Orleans, which it said broadly mirrors the population there.
Dabadie said during the last four academy classes, 67 to 75 percent of the cadets have been officers of color.
"I think we've worked really hard to get our inner-city minority applicants to join the Baton Rouge Police Department," he said. "But when you have a part of your community that doesn't trust police, it's really hard to get them to come work for the police."
More broadly, expanding the BRPD's community policing efforts in a city of about 229,000 people would simply take additional officers on the street, Dabadie said. That is a challenge for an agency with recruitment troubles that start with a comparatively low starting salary of about $33,000.
"One thing everyone needs to realize is, we are a mid- to large-sized city. We have (about) 650 police officers to police 79 square miles. We handled 215,000 calls for service last year, not including traffic stops. So if (critics) truly want us to get back to a true form of community policing, we'd have to hire a lot of policemen," he said.
Flowers, the pastor at New Sunlight Baptist Church, said his experiences from when he was a black teenager in Baton Rouge continue to linger with him as he remembers being patted down by police while not causing trouble. More recently, Flowers said he went to check on his in-laws one night when their alarm went off, and the police officer there immediately told him to drop to the ground.
As Wicker's 14-year-old son gets older, she said she worries more and more about him. When she could not find him for a few minutes after Sterling was shot, fear gripped her.
"I was scared for the first time in my life for my son," she said.
Still, most public officials commended Dabadie and said he has tried his best to improve race relations and build trust. They say future progress will be slow, as the black community's concerns about the police department have been building for a long time.
McClanahan, who after Sterling's killing called on Holden to fire Dabadie and to resign, placed most of the blame at the mayor's feet.
"If he was elected, I would say he's doing a great job," McClanahan said. "But because he has to answer to the mayor and not the voters, his hands are tied."
In a separate interview, Dabadie said he frequently updates Holden on the police department's actions but that the mayor does not micromanage him, nor the agency. Dabadie said he's not hampered by Holden or the police union, though he has to work with both.
Holden declined to talk about the police department's relationship with the black community. Asked specifically this week about complaints made against Baton Rouge police after Katrina, Holden deferred comment to Dabadie and past police chiefs and claimed he did not remember the events.
"This is the first time in all of these years that I've ever heard that we had police departments (from other places)," Holden said. "We had some national guard people and our department...whoever these people are, I don't even know who they are," he said about the complaints.
That is different from what Holden said in 2010, when the mayor acknowledged the complaints made by New Mexico and Michigan troopers when they became public. He said then that there may have been mistakes, but the complaints were not evidence of systemic problems.
He had also acknowledged asking Baton Rouge police to be forceful in stopping the city from being "overrun by some people from New Orleans who were hell-bent on committing crimes."
Holden said in 2010: "If there's a blame to be placed on aggressive enforcement, blame it on me."
Advocate staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.