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Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul talks as members file in before Paul spoke at the Rotary Club lunch on the topic of 'strengthening the trust between BRPD and the public,' Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018 at Drusilla Place Catering.

As he announced a settlement with the former Baton Rouge cop responsible for Alton Sterling's death, the city's police chief apologized to the public no less than 15 times — both for the 2016 officer shooting that ignited nationwide protests and for his department's contributions to the current climate of mistrust between residents and law enforcement.

Chief Murphy Paul was clear in his intention: acknowledging historic injustices in hopes of rebuilding trust within communities of color.

Many Baton Rouge residents welcomed his bold address — which stands out from traditional rhetoric surrounding questions about police brutality — and law enforcement leaders across the nation have called his words courageous, even as members of Paul's own department voiced concern.


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"It's not commonplace in policing that chiefs would apologize for the past," said Jim Bueermann, a policing consultant and former president of the nonprofit National Police Foundation. "I hope it serves as a positive example to other chiefs who are having similar problems because truly you'll never get to a point of reconciliation until you acknowledge the pain of the past."

The 2016 Alton Sterling shooting became a cloud over the Baton Rouge community as criminal investigations dragged on for years before state and federal prosecutors declined to press charges against the officer responsible for Sterling's death: Blane Salamoni.

Paul, who took office in January 2018, promised in his speech Thursday that the disciplinary settlement means Salamoni will "never be policing the streets of Baton Rouge again." The chief also sharply criticized former department administrations for initially hiring Salamoni and then failing to intervene after concerns surfaced about his conduct while in uniform.

"Baton Rouge, we're sorry," Paul said. "The actions and the character of Salamoni do not reflect how BRPD operates as an organization. We are a department committed to healing and to safety."

Experts said Paul took a big step in the right direction.

"There's no easy solution to race and policing," Bueermann said. "At the end of the day, it has to revolve around communication, and that really isn't a police issue. That's a human issue. How do you and I get to a point where we can trust each other?"

Several leaders in Baton Rouge's black community also praised Paul's message. State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Democrat who represents much of north Baton Rouge, said she thinks it will help the city finally move toward building a police agency everyone can trust.

"It took three years for the Alton Sterling family to hear somebody to say, 'I'm sorry.' An apology goes a long way," Marcelle said. "I was not expecting the apology, but I welcomed it; the community has embraced it."

Salamoni was one of two white officers who approached Sterling outside a convenience store on North Foster Drive after receiving complaints that a black man in a red shirt was selling CDs outside the business and had brandished a gun. In a short confrontation partially captured in a cellphone video, Salamoni shot Sterling during a struggle among the three men.

Paul's apology didn't come out of nowhere. A small handful of law enforcement leaders have presented similar messages in recent years since officer shootings across the country have spurred questions about police brutality and implicit bias.

It appears the first to present a major public apology was Terrence Cunningham of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who addressed thousands of law enforcement leaders as the organization's president during an annual conference in October 2016 — three months after Sterling's death. He said the healing process requires mutual respect between officers and the people they serve.

"The first step in this process is for the law enforcement profession and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society's historical mistreatment of communities of color," he said during the address. "It is my hope that by working together we can break this historic cycle of mistrust and build a better and safer future for us all."

Cunningham, who is now deputy executive director of the IACP, said in an interview Friday that he gave the speech after a meeting with other law enforcement leaders and former President Barack Obama to discuss several recent instances of violence involving police — including the fatal shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Sterling's death and subsequent officer ambushes in Baton Rouge and Dallas.

The president noted at the meeting that he had never heard law enforcement apologize for past mistakes, according to Cunningham's retelling.

"He said it would go a long way for trust and transparency if someone in your position stood up and apologized," Cunningham said. "The more I thought about it … I decided if I could save one cop's life by doing that and start to heal some of the damage that's been done, it was something I needed to do."

After reviewing Paul's remarks this week, Cunningham said the chief "sent a clear signal to the people of Baton Rouge that trust and transparency is of utmost importance for the police department." He also said that such a message won't come without significant blowback from people who disagree with the premise.

Some such critics have already surfaced within the Baton Rouge police force and among retired officers.

"We are both angered and saddened with the character assassination of Blane Salamoni, previous administrations, as well as past and present members of the Baton Rouge Police Department," police union attorney Tommy Dewey wrote in a statement on behalf of the organization. Union leaders offered their continued support for Salamoni — whom the chief said should never have worn a BRPD uniform — and defended his hiring and service with the department.

Former Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade also condemned Paul's comments, questioning why the current chief didn't mention the officers who were killed in the weeks after Sterling's death when a lone gunman ambushed Baton Rouge law enforcement officers.

"If you're going to start apologizing, then you apologize to everyone who was affected by this," Englade said. Baton Rouge police officers Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald and East Baton Rouge Sheriff's deputy Brad Garafola were killed in the attack on July 17, 2016, which many believed was a response to police shootings of civilians across the country.

Englade said Paul's comments have also made a lot of officers feel like this administration does not support them and their dangerous job.

Some of Paul's supporters also found flaw in his announcement Thursday. Many are concerned that the settlement with Salmaoni theoretically allows him to return to law enforcement at other agencies. But they still found Paul's address a huge step in the right direction.

"I think it was brave of him to do," said Walter "Geno" McLaughlin, an advocate for change in north Baton Rouge. "The other side of the community has largely felt unheard and ostracized during this process, and I think we all breathed a sigh of relief."

Policing experts across the country agreed. Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, now with the Center for Policing Equity, said Paul's apology was crucial, but his true test of leadership is yet to come.

"That's the next step here. That's where you will start to see Baton Rouge heal: making sure this never happens again in this community," Burbank said. "I really give credit to those people who are willing to take responsibility and move their communities forward."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.