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Baton Rouge Police Department Internal Affairs Commander Sgt. Myron Daniels, right, speaks as Chief Murphy Paul, left, watches at a news conference Friday, March 30, 2018, detailing the disciplinary action decision for officers Howie Lake ll and Blane Salamoni, who were involved in the 2016 fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, 37.

Leaders of the Baton Rouge Police Department sent out an email to their subordinates in March after claims started circulating among some officers that the current administration was favoring black cops over their white counterparts during the agency's internal discipline process. 

"The narrative of many naysayers seems to be that the process is unfair and discriminatory," Internal Affairs Commander Sgt. Myron Daniels wrote in the email, which was initially sent to just the chief and his deputies, then forwarded to others throughout the department. "I think the numbers speak for themselves and would shock most." 

The message included an attachment with data showing the racial breakdown of recent internal affairs investigations stemming from allegations of officer misconduct. The numbers reveal no significant discrepancies along racial lines. 

The department's response to the recent claims of preferential treatment is the latest sign of strife in an organization that has long grappled with questions of race and representation. This evidence of turmoil within the department also comes amid ongoing efforts to build trust between Baton Rouge police officers and the public, particularly communities of color. 

Murphy 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 Alton Sterling in the 2016 police shooting that ignited nationwide protests. That decision alone fueled discussions about race, both within the department and throughout the Baton Rouge community. 

But now some officers are alleging a systemic problem that extends far beyond Salamoni's termination, arguing that Paul's administration is showing favoritism to black cops and using the discipline process for retaliation purposes. 

Those allegations are outlined in a complaint one officer filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May. A third party provided The Advocate with a copy of the complaint, which isn't public record because the investigation is ongoing.

The complaining officer, a veteran of the force who has served almost two decades, wrote that he worked in the department's internal affairs division for some time, but requested a transfer to uniform patrol in December 2018 — about a year after Paul became chief. 

"The reason I requested this transfer was … that I personally observed multiple instances of officers being treated differently because of their race," the officer wrote. "Because I was powerless to stop what was occurring, I instead decided to leave the division rather than be associated with that behavior."

The officer wrote about witnessing the internal affairs commander "routinely dismiss investigations of cases levied against African American officers, only to promote similar and even lesser allegations against white officers." 

Several other officers also told The Advocate they believe the current administration has weaponized the discipline process to punish members of the department who don't agree with Paul's leadership decisions. The officers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are forbidden from discussing such matters with the media. They also provided examples of recent internal affairs cases they said demonstrate preferential treatment. 

Several weeks after the EEOC complaint was filed, department leaders presented an updated version of the internal affairs data at a public meeting and then released it to The Advocate in response to a public records request. Daniels, the internal affairs commander, said the department routinely tracks such information and leaders recently decided to release it because they want to be as transparent as possible. 

"There were questions coming up, and it was just a bad narrative being put out there," Daniels said in an interview last month. "People are alleging that African Americans are receiving preferential treatment and being investigated less, but actually … the opposite is true."

Of the 75 internal affairs investigations that came before the chief's discipline review board between when Paul took office and the end of June this year, 16 resulted in officers receiving either suspensions or terminations. Eight of those 16 are white and seven are black.

The agency itself is just over 60 percent white and about 35 percent black, according to department figures. Daniels said the records show that if anything, black officers are receiving a larger share of discipline. He said black officers are also facing a slightly disproportionate number of internal affairs investigations to begin with: about 41 percent of all investigations in 2018.

But the argument outlined in the EEOC complaint — and echoed by other officers — claims that some instances of misconduct are being ignored or passed over, meaning they never even rise to the level of triggering an internal affairs investigation and therefore are not reflected in the numbers. At the same time, some minor missteps trigger unnecessary investigations instead of being handled on a more informal basis, according to the complaint.

For example, the complainant wrote, he himself is facing two ongoing internal affairs investigations, which he claims were launched in retaliation for his decision to speak out about what he considers misconduct within the division. 

Paul declined to comment specifically on the EEOC matter, but said that such a complaint "cannot be used to circumvent an internal affairs investigation."

The chief also denied having released the internal affairs data to combat rumors within the department, stating he doesn't "deal in rumor mills." He said anyone who questions his administration's discipline record should look at the data, and encouraged officers with legitimate concerns or questions about the internal affairs process to bring them to his attention. 

"I came in and I made some decisions that some people are not happy with. I think that is obvious," Paul said. "Some I've won over and some I haven't. But I'm gonna keep trying to win them all over … because I think we're doing the right thing."

Daniels, who has served more than two decades with the department, claims Paul has established a new standard of consistency in discipline that wasn't always followed under past administrations. 

Daniels said the department has revamped its early intervention program, which aims to get officers back on track through additional oversight and training following small issues with their performance. A new electronic system for filing internal affairs records also makes it easier to monitor trends within the division.

He said department policy specifically outlines how the internal affairs division should respond to certain offenses, which are grouped into three categories based on their severity. Those in the most serious category — such as a felony conviction, insubordination or making unauthorized public statements — automatically trigger a formal internal affairs investigation.

Daniels was a top contender for chief during the 2017 selection process but instead landed at the helm of internal affairs after Paul took office. Daniels spent years serving as president of the capital area branch of the Magnolia State Peace Officers Association, a statewide organization for black police officers, but stepped down when he moved to his current position within the department. Part of his role as president involved advocating for officers throughout the discipline process, including in public appeal hearings before the local civil service board, which can uphold or overturn the chief's decisions. 

Daniels said claims about racial tensions among officers are nothing new, but he's surprised at their persistence.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "It's very disheartening that this is even something we have to deal with in 2019."

Questions of race have also arisen in a handful of discipline cases over the past several years, including when two officers — one white and one black — received suspensions in response to allegations that they made racially charged comments in May 2017 as the department was bracing for protests after federal prosecutors declined to press charges against the cops involved in the Sterling shooting.

Paul said these issues aren't unique to the Baton Rouge Police Department and shouldn't be treated as such. "It's everywhere. Race matters everywhere," he said. "It's no different here."

The department was recently released from a decades old federal consent decree 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. 

He was appointed chief after serving decades with Louisiana State Police, beating out other finalists with extensive experience on the Baton Rouge Police Department, and allowing him to approach the job with what some consider an outside perspective.

Despite the criticism coming from Baton Rouge police officers themselves, many independent law enforcement experts agree that the steps Paul's administration has taken to reform the department are in line with accepted best practices, especially since the profession has shifted its focus in recent years to increasing transparency and building public trust.

"Murphy Paul has taken great strides to implement accountability in his police department — one of the most important things a department can do to improve community trust," said Myesha Braden, director of the criminal justice project for the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

Braden worked with the Baton Rouge Police Department and others last year to organize the Dialogue on Race and Policing, which brought law enforcement leaders together with Baton Rouge residents and academics. She said resistance to change happens in law enforcement agencies everywhere, but the recent allegations in Baton Rouge are unique for their focus on race.

"When police don't have their house in order and when the public sees what it believes are racial motivations acting within the police department, it completely undermines community police relations," Braden said. "Change is difficult, but the people of Baton Rouge have to trust that they have a police chief who's working to give them the police force they want and deserve. Until he does something to prove that he no longer deserves that trust, I hope the public will stick with him."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.