Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul apologized Thursday to communities of color in Louisiana's capital city for his department's contributions to the climate of mistrust between residents and police that reached a boiling point in the aftermath of a controversial 2016 officer shooting.

Blane Salamoni, the officer who pulled the trigger and killed Alton Sterling, was fired from the department last year, but on Thursday Paul announced a new settlement agreement in Salamoni's appeal of that termination. The agreement will allow both parties to finally sever ties — now more than three years after Sterling's death ignited nationwide protests about police brutality. 

"I think that we have to be honest when we try to understand the history of policing in the city of Baton Rouge," Paul said at a 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."

Paul said the new deal means Salamoni will "never be policing the streets of Baton Rouge again," which he said is crucial after reviewing Salamoni's track record — both before and during his time as an officer.

That record shows "a well-documented pattern of unprofessional behavior, police violence, marginalization, polarization and implicit bias by a man who should have never, ever worn this uniform. Period," Paul said. "We have to call if for what it is."

Attorneys for Salamoni objected to Paul's characterization of their client's conduct, emphasizing the fact that both state and federal prosecutors long ago declined to press criminal charges against the officer based on their review of the Sterling case. 

Under the settlement agreement, Salamoni's termination will be replaced with a formal resignation from the department, and in exchange the officer will withdraw his appeal to the local civil service board, which reviews disciplinary decisions for city police officers and firefighters. If the board had heard Salamoni's appeal, it could have overturned his discipline, giving him his job back — a risk Paul decided not to take. The appeal hearing was scheduled for later this month but has now been canceled, allowing both sides to avoid once again publicly rehashing the events of July 5, 2016. 

Salamoni will not receive back pay or any other compensation from the department, according to attorneys on both sides. However, the resignation does allow Salamoni to theoretically return to another law enforcement agency in the future — an option his attorneys said he hasn't ruled out. 

Paul also went so far as to say that Salamoni should never have been hired, which happened before Paul took office, because Salamoni did not disclose in his application a prior arrest in a domestic abuse incident. 

"Baton Rouge, we are sorry," Paul said. "We're sorry for hiring a person who was intentionally untruthful and misleading, who failed to report information requested during the hiring process. … We're sorry for our failure not to discipline an officer who demonstrated unprofessional behavior and violated our code of conduct consistently, escalating incidents. We're sorry, Baton Rouge."

The chief repeatedly stated that Salamoni is not representative of the Baton Rouge Police Department. 

"We are a department committed to healing and to safety," Paul said. "We have honorable men and women who work for the Baton Rouge Police Department." 

Salamoni's attorney John McLindon took issue with Paul's comments during the Thursday press conference, saying his client would have won the appeal "hands down" but instead chose to settle because he wanted to bring closure to his community.

"It's very unfortunate that the chief presented a lot of extraneous accusations. … What the chief did was not in the spirit of compromise," McLindon said. "The idea was for both sides to bring closure to the city, and he unfortunately made a bunch of inflammatory remarks." 

While this agreement finalizes Salamoni's separation from the police department internally, he remains central to a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Sterling's family. The lawsuit, filed in June 2017 in state district court, claims that when Salamoni fired the shots that killed Sterling, the officer exemplified longstanding problems within the Baton Rouge Police Department, including a culture of entrenched racist attitudes and excessive force among some officers — an account that plaintiff attorney Mike Adams said was confirmed by the police chief on Thursday. 

Adams, who represents Sterling's youngest children, said it's unclear whether Paul's comments will affect the outcome of their ongoing lawsuit, which names as defendants Salamoni, the city of Baton Rouge and its police department. Adams said settlement negotiations in that case have reached a standstill in recent weeks. He called Paul's public comments on Thursday refreshing. 

"Have you ever seen that in America after a police officer-involved shooting?" Adams said. "It's unbelievable that the city and the city council would be fighting us when they have the knowledge that they have in this case. The city knew that he was a bad officer … they knew that an intervention could have taken place and it never did. We will continue in our fight for justice for the Sterling kids."

Paul also apologized directly to the Sterling family, saying Salamoni's behavior should have been addressed long before Sterling's death.

A review of Salamoni's conduct during his five years as an officer — from 2011 to 2016 — has revealed a pattern of aggression and unprofessional behavior in interactions with the public, according to department leaders. Paul, who took office in January 2018, said there were rules and regulations in place to hold officers accountable during Salamoni's tenure — policies that "were enforced on others, but for some reason, they didn't apply to Blane Salamoni."

Salamoni comes from a family of public safety officers. His mother, Melissa Salamoni, served 32 years as a Baton Rouge police officer, rising to the rank of captain and becoming the organization's first female chief of staff. His father, Noel Salamoni, has held several high-ranking positions within the department over his decades of services and is a former leader of the police union. He retired within the past few months, according to department officials.

Paul declined to comment Thursday on whether Blane Salamoni's family ties could have contributed to the treatment he received from past department leadership. Instead, the chief highlighted several instances in which he said Salamoni's actions should have raised red flags — the first before he was even hired. 

Salamoni was detained by police in July 2009 at Happy's Irish Pub in downtown Baton Rouge for yelling and shoving a woman he had broken up with earlier that day, according to incident reports that were released to The Advocate in a public records request. He was handcuffed and brought to the nearest police station, accused of simple battery. The woman later declined to press charges and prosecutors didn't go forward with the case, records show. 

Paul also alluded to several other incidents during Salamoni's time as a cop, including when he got into a fight with another officer at the firing range, leading the commander in charge to call both men "borderline nuts" in an email describing what happened. A review of Salamoni's bodycam footage also revealed his routine use of profanity and aggression in interactions with suspects, Paul said. 

"While we obviously can't change the past, it is clear that we must change the future," the chief said. "I sincerely apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in building barriers in communities of color in the city of Baton Rouge."

Paul's announcement about the settlement came just days after a West Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy shot and killed a man in a motel room while executing a search warrant for drugs. Authorities have released few details about what happened; however, an autopsy showed he was shot in the back of the neck, spurring protests demanding justice in that case. Paul acknowledged the timing and the fact that such incidents reignite emotions from 2016 and the past.

East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome also issued a statement calling the resolution of Salamoni's appeal "a long time coming."

"Our department no longer has room for individuals who can't live up to its high standards or have shown a pattern of unprofessional behavior," Broome said. "Public servants are and should be held to a higher standard, no one is exempt."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.