In Baton Rouge Police Department’s sprawling 3rd District, the days and nights grew long in recent weeks. But Sunday took a completely different kind of toll.
Based inside an old hospital complex on Airline Highway now serving as police headquarters, the district’s 80 officers were on the front lines of the Alton Sterling protests that had moved to just across the street. Then, just days ago, the district lost two men, Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald, to a lone gunman from Missouri who was targeting police.
The Sterling protests, which erupted after the July 5th shooting of the 37-year-old man by a Baton Rouge police officer, put the entire department on extended hours. The 3rd district’s six shifts were compressed into four. Two shifts manned the protests. The other two stayed on patrol, facing 12-hour days that ended up being 18- to 19-hour ones.
“We have been around the clock,” said Lt. Jay Lapeyrouse, one of six shift supervisors in the police district.
Lapeyrouse’s brother is a supervisor also -- he oversaw Jackson’s shift that morning -- and was involved in the response to Sunday’s shootings, he said.
“It really pushed everybody to their limit, you know. I can’t tell you how much stress I was under yesterday,” Lapeyrouse said in an interview Monday afternoon.
By the weekend, protests over Sterling had subsided and some officers were looking ahead to an easing of their work days. But that Sunday morning, Gavin Eugene Long, an ex-Marine who authorities said was on a mission to kill law enforcement officers, fatally shot the two officers and parish sheriff’s deputy Brad Garafola.
Long was able to injure another officer and two deputies in the shootout near the B-Quik convenience store just down Airline from police headquarters before he was killed by a shot from a SWAT team member.
The man who gunned down law enforcement officers Sunday in Baton Rouge planned his approach …
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III told 45 out-of-parish deputies he swore in Monday night, who like other officers had come to Baton Rouge to relieve his department, that Long was “deliberate, “intent,” “well-trained” and “well-armed” in his attack after he spent several days in the city.
Years of social science research suggests the regular stresses of the day-to-day work of a cop come with mental and emotional strains.
Dr. Howard Osofsky, professor and chairman of psychiatry at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, said major traumatic events like seeing fellow officers killed on the job can have an even deeper effect on officers’ mental well-being. He said he spoke with first responders after Hurricane Katrina and they reported higher levels of stress for them, their spouses and children.
“I think it’s important to remember that most officers are resilient … and they’re strong, but, at same time, that they are very traumatized, that they are going through a lot, and, for us, as a community to recognize how hard it is to be a first responder and how hard it is to be a first responder at a time like this, and for the families, too,” Osofsky said.
The Baton Rouge police slayings came on the heels of a another lone gunman targeting officers in Dallas at an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest march. Five officers died in that ambush.
Thirty-two officers have died from gunshots this year, a 78 percent increase over the same period last year when 18 were killed, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Of those slayings so far this year, 14 happened in ambushes, compared with three through the same point in 2015, said Steve Groeninger, spokesman for the fund, which tracks law enforcement deaths.
But, overall, statistics show that officer shooting deaths on the job have plummeted in recent years after reaching a modern high in the 1970s, peaking at 156 in 1973.
Part of the change for officers comes from higher scrutiny, with cell phone videos and social media shining a stronger light on police actions on the street in recent years.
The fatal shooting of Sterling, who was selling CD's in front of a convenience store, brought those national concerns right home to Baton Rouge. Cell phone video became public that same day, with many people saying it raised questions about whether the shooting was justified.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating the Sterling shooting for possible civil rights violations. A police search warrant says officers spotted the butt of a gun in Sterling’s pocket and saw him reach for it before an officer fired. Sterling was pinned to the ground at the time. An attorney for Sterling’s son and his mother disputes the police account and say the videos don’t square with the police narrative.
Mike Mattingly, chaplain coordinator of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team in Baton Rouge ministering to officers, said his group has also showed up at scenes of major civil unrest and mass shootings in recent years to serve as a bridge between law enforcement and the public.
“Officers feel betrayed. They feel let down. They’re frustrated, heartbroke and also angry,” Mattingly said. “Their job is to maintain law and order in our community, and they’re being challenged at every turn by the media, or by a social, political mindset that doesn’t have their interest at heart.”
John Lewis, 24, a Baton Rouge resident who helped organize some of the Sterling protests this month, said the protests that he was a part of were not anti-police but trying to call for positive change. Lewis, who helped organize memorials of the slain officers Wednesday at LSU, also charged that media portrayals of the protests focused on brief confrontations between a few of the protesters and officers when other times demonstrators were hugging and trying to high five officers.
“We’re not for violence. We’re not anti-police. That’s not, anti-police, what it’s about. It’s about accountability and policing reform,” Lewis said.
Sarah Foret, 35, who is married to an East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy and also has a brother-in-law on the force, said she has always been concerned about her loved ones' safety on the job, but she called the last three weeks a “nightmare.” While her husband has been on patrol in Central, her brother-in-law was on the sheriff’s task force at the Sterling protests, she said.
“I’ve been crying for three weeks now,” said Foret, a payroll and benefits manager for a private school in Baton Rouge.
Foret and her husband have tried to keep things on schedule for their two young boys. As a part of that daily routine, they continue every day to have a group hug when her husband leaves for work, telling him they love him and to come home safely.
“They are humans just like you and I. They wake up every morning to serve and protect, and that’s what they’re here for, and they’re not bad people,” Foret said.
Lapeyrouse, the Baton Rouge police lieutenant who has been with the department 26 years, oversees 12 officers on his shift. Most are just starting their law enforcement careers.
He said the events of the past few weeks and the loss of Jackson and Gerald have raised questions and frustrations.
“It’s confusing. Sometimes it makes you wonder if you’re doing it for the right reason,” Lapeyrouse said.
But then Lapeyrouse pointed to the food and drink that have filled his portion of the 3rd District office in recent days: boxes of pizzas, fried chicken, finger sandwiches, stacks of boxes of donuts, ice chests full of sports drinks. The random calls of support, the letters and the hug he got from a stranger the other day on the street, Lapeyrouse said, let him know “99.9 percent” of Baton Rouge supports the police.
Lapeyrouse said the coming funerals of the slain officers will be another “emotional roller coaster." And, those on Gerald's and Jackson's shifts, including Lapeyrouse's brother, will need their own help getting through those losses.
“I ask myself would I leave? No, and I asked a few of the rookies, would they leave? And the answer is no. If anything, I think it’s going to drive up recruitment. I see that coming,” Lapeyrouse said.