Two Baton Rouge police officers were ordered to complete training on the impacts of systemic racism last month after department leadership became aware of old email exchanges containing racist language.
The emails — which were sent to and from official Baton Rouge Police Department accounts belonging to white officers in 2014 and 2015 — had not become public until this week. They add to mounting evidence that racial tensions have long simmered within the department's ranks, even before they received heightened attention following the 2016 police shooting of Alton Sterling, which caused some to question whether an underlying culture of intolerance among officers had surfaced during that fatal encounter.
An attorney representing plaintiffs in two ongoing lawsuits against the city of Baton Rouge released the emails to the media Monday, explaining that he and his colleagues had come across the exchanges during an investigation that's not directly related to any litigation. They had submitted a public records request in 2018 for all messages containing the N-word that were sent to and from official BRPD accounts, and received a response from the department in March.
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"These emails are disturbing in the context of BRPD's broader struggles with race and professionalism," New Orleans attorney William Most wrote in a July 7 letter to Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul.
Department leaders said Tuesday they launched internal affairs investigations against the two officers involved in the email exchanges, and that these examples of racist language appeared to be separate and isolated incidents.
The officers were ordered to participate in a training program about the "dehumanization of black men and boys," which they recently completed. Rhonda Bryant, who leads a national organization aimed at improving the lives of young black men, visited Baton Rouge and gave a presentation last month.
Most credited the chief for taking action to address the officers' behavior. "We appreciate and respect Chief Paul's statement of how seriously he takes this issue, and we hope that this sparks a deeper investigation into Louisiana law enforcement," he said in a statement Monday.
The officers' names have not been released.
One wrote in an August 2014 email to someone in the U.S. Army: "I had one f****** module left and now I'll probably have to start over. F****** n*****." It's unclear what the module pertains to.
The other exchange is between a Baton Rouge cop and his wife from November 2015 in which she wrote "no n***** will ever bring me down" and "they wonder why (they're) called n******." The husband did not respond with the same language, but didn't condemn it either. He simply wrote in one email response: "Sorry bout that boo" and in another "Yep. Bull****."
Most said he and his colleague, Thomas Frampton of Harvard Law School, chose to release the emails even though they're not connected to any legal proceedings. He said additional emails did surface in response to the same records request, but the attorneys didn't feel those other messages rose to the same level and therefore didn't release them.
Frampton said these two exchanges in particular "call into question the credibility of the cases these officers have worked on." East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he wasn't aware of the allegations before now, but would take them into consideration and evaluate their potential impact. Moore's office keeps a list of dozens of local law enforcement officers with compromising pasts that could affect their credibility during a trial.
Most declined to comment on whether he plans to file any additional lawsuits against the city in the future. He's already representing plaintiffs in two existing suits, both focused on how city officials responded to critics in the aftermath of Sterling's death, which ignited nationwide protests about police brutality. One alleges that the East Baton Rouge Metro Council tried to silence black voices when it had the president of the local NAACP chapter and others removed from council chambers during a 2017 meeting. The other claims the arrests of several protesters and journalists during demonstrations in 2016 violated their First Amendment rights and that the arrests were executed using excessive force.
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The officers involved in the email exchanges were subjected to internal affairs investigations launched in 2018 after department leaders received the attorneys' records request, Deputy Chief Jonny Dunnam said Tuesday morning. The complaints against the officers were sustained and they received conference worksheets, which essentially function as warnings for cops whose conduct isn't bad enough to trigger formal discipline proceedings. Dunnam said the length of time that had passed since the emails were sent and received was considered when determining appropriate discipline.
He said BRPD leaders have started routinely searching for derogatory terms in departmental emails and haven't found any more recent examples of such language being used.
"The chief since he came is has wanted to change the culture of the Baton Rouge Police Department," Dunnam said. "This appears to be an isolated incident and hopefully we won't have any more."
Questions of racial bias have arisen in a handful of other BRPD internal affairs cases over the past several years, including in September 2014 when an officer resigned after being accused of sending a series of racist text messages. "I wish someone would … take them out. I hate looking at those African monkeys at work," the texts read. "I enjoy arresting those thugs with their saggy pants."
Carl Dabadie, who was chief at the time, said then that he believed that was an isolated incident and didn't want that officer's words to reflect negatively on the entire department. But Most said the emails he found suggest otherwise.
The department was recently released from a federal consent decree dating back decades that mandated oversight of its hiring and promotional practices to decrease discrimination against minorities and women. Baton Rouge was one of almost 40 municipalities across Louisiana placed into the program in 1980, and one of the last to be released. Paul described it as a "cloud over our head" and pledged to address the issue almost immediately after being sworn in.
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Paul took office in January 2018 — Baton Rouge's second ever black police chief — and his first major public decision was to fire Blane Salamoni, the white officer who killed Sterling while responding to reports of a black man threatening someone with a gun outside a local convenience store. Paul's decision to fire the officer fueled discussions about race, both within the department and throughout the Baton Rouge community.
The chief has since fielded allegations that his administration is favoring black officers over their white counterparts during the internal discipline process. Department leaders have staunchly denied the allegations and released discipline numbers, which show no significant discrepancies along racial lines.
All this comes as Paul seeks to build trust among Baton Rouge residents. His efforts to address past injustices — and remove "bad apples" from the department's ranks — came to a head this summer when the chief announced a settlement agreement with Salamoni, ending the discipline appeal process and allowing both parties to sever ties after the officer appealed his termination. Paul blasted past department leadership for ever hiring Salamoni and publicly apologized to communities of color across Baton Rouge.
"I think that we have to be honest when we try to understand the history of policing in the city of Baton Rouge," he said during the Aug. 1 press conference. "We must recognize and acknowledge that some of our policing practices have traumatized parts of our community. This is bigger than Alton Sterling. That was just the tipping point for some in this community."
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