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Louisiana State Police Lt. Sheldon Perkins in April 2013.

After serving nearly two decades as a Louisiana State Police trooper and rising to the rank of lieutenant, Sheldon Perkins almost threw away his law enforcement career when he got pulled over for drunk driving in 2019. But a civil service board decision Thursday gave him another chance.

Perkins was fired from the agency just weeks after the August 2019 traffic stop, which occurred while he was off duty and driving his personal car 85 mph on Burbank Drive in Baton Rouge. While calling someone to come pick him up, Perkins became combative with fellow troopers, who ultimately used a stun gun to gain control. He was booked into jail that night. 

Not long after posting bail, he voluntarily enrolled in rehab and received treatment for alcoholism.

Almost two years later, he appeared before the Louisiana State Police Commission to deliver a heartfelt apology for his actions and describe his recent transformation. He asked the board to overturn his termination. 

The board obliged. On Thursday morning, commissioners voted unanimously to reinstate Perkins, replacing the termination with a demotion and unpaid suspension. Perkins will also have to undergo random drug and alcohol screenings for the rest of his State Police career and show proof of regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the board decided.

"We recognize that alcoholism is a disease,"  said Brian Crawford, commission vice chair. "That's proven, not debatable. Today, I ask the commissioners to join me in holding Mr. Perkins accountable for his actions that night … but also show him something we see too little of — and that's compassion."

In addition to highlighting the potential pitfalls of so-called "cancel culture," Crawford noted that Perkins took full responsibility for his behavior and took action to address his health. Other commissioners agreed that Perkins should not be "canceled," though he faces a significant demotion from lieutenant to sergeant.

The decision came after a nearly three-hour appeal hearing before the commission, which has the authority to uphold or overturn discipline issued by the Louisiana State Police superintendent. 

The hearing included testimony from Perkins, who alluded to a series of recent State Police scandals involving troopers in the Monroe area brutally beating Black suspects and then trying to cover it up. Perkins raised questions about why some of those troopers saw little to no discipline and continued patrolling the streets — until recent lawsuits and media reports brought the incidents to light. 

Toward the end of the hearing, commissioners viewed bodycam footage of the traffic stop, including when Perkins refused to comply with his colleagues and escalated the encounter despite their repeated attempts to reason with him. The video shows him arguing with the troopers about which street they were on, wrongly insisting it was Brightside Drive while walking into the road to read the signs. 

When the arresting officers repeatedly told him to stop walking toward traffic, Perkins got combative and started pushing them, which is when he was tased and handcuffed. Then he got mad about the stun gun and drunkenly accused his colleagues of "doing everything outside protocol." His blood alcohol level registered at .177, about twice the legal limit to drive.

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During the hearing, Perkins did not dispute what happened that night. He acknowledged his actions clearly violated State Police policies that require compliance with state law and prohibit substance abuse and conduct unbecoming an officer.

The two troopers who conducted the stop — both relatively low-ranking compared to Perkins — told commissioners the incident hurt their morale. Because of course State Police training fails to address hypothetical traffic stops involving a belligerent senior colleague, the troopers said they ultimately treated Perkins like anyone else refusing to comply with law enforcement.

Commissioners also heard from State Police Assistant Superintendent Doug Cain, who — before explaining the rationale behind his termination decision — introduced himself as a longtime friend and colleague of Perkins. 

Cain said the behavior recorded on bodycam footage seemed totally out of character for Perkins. He said that despite whatever issues Perkins was having with alcohol, he always appeared sober at work. 

"But what it boils down to is this: a senior experienced officer who … mistreated two young troopers simply doing their jobs," Cain said. "For me, that is simply inexcusable."

In addition to his belligerence during the traffic stop, State Police leaders noted a prior discipline case against Perkins. He received a two-week suspension in 2016 after investigators found he removed several pieces of evidence from a vault, including a $400 ice chest and fishing equipment, and gave them to a retired State Police lieutenant.

In his remarks to the commission Thursday, Perkins said he received stellar job performance ratings from his superiors for the two years following that case. He also apologized to the troopers who arrested him in 2019, acknowledging that his behavior forced them to respond the way they did.

In the 21 months since his arrest, Perkins said, he got sober and worked a few different jobs, including in a UPS warehouse and at Trader Joes. He mentioned his prior military service and masters degree, asking the commission to consider those accomplishments alongside his recent mistakes.

"I cannot change the past — Lord knows, I wish I could," he said. "I am not a horrible person, but someone who was given a wakeup call that my drinking was out of control and I needed help."

After saying his piece, Perkins sat next to his wife to await the commission ruling. When the board voted to reinstate him, he briefly clasped her hand. 

In addition to the demotion, he was suspended for 18 weeks without pay. It was unclear Thursday what assignment Perkins will receive upon returning to work.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.