A photo of two white Baton Rouge police officers covered in dark make-up — snapped before a 1993 undercover drug sting in a predominantly black community — has the capital city now part of the nation’s reckoning of racist images.
While the police department has explained that the photo was related to an undercover narcotics operation from 25 years ago — one the police chief at the time recalled as “very successful” — current Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul issued an apology Monday about the photo.
"Blackface photographs are inappropriate and offensive," Paul wrote in a statement. "They were inappropriate then and are inappropriate today. The Baton Rouge Police Department would like to apologize to our citizens and to anyone who may have been offended by the photographs."
The photo, which was posted online this weekend by The Rouge Collection, shows two officers, Crimestoppers coordinator Lt. Don Stone and now-retired police Capt. Frankie Caruso, posing above a caption that says 'Soul Brothers.'
Caruso and the police chief at the time, Greg Phares, have since defended the decision to have white officers dressing to appear black as a part of the police operation. They said it was done only with the intent to get drugs off the street, and not to degrade or make fun of black people.
And while the officers’ behavior did not quite match that which threatens the careers of two top Virginia politicians, the BRPD photo triggered discussions about how to address and move on from the image.
“I would like to see communities recognize what was wrong with it, and act from that,” said Maxine Crump, the founder of Dialogue on Race Louisiana, a local nonprofit working to eradicate racism. “Defending it and justifying it does not change the fact it was wrong then, even if they weren’t aware.”
Walter “Geno” McLaughlin, a black activist who has worked with the police department on community initiatives, said, “It’s always unsettling when you see people deciding to go with blackface. … I don’t think there’s ever a place for it. … It’s time to have a conversation about it.”
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome also weighed in Monday with this statement: "It has come to my attention that a photo circulating on social media depicts Baton Rouge Police Department officers wearing what appears to be blackface during a department-approved undercover operation which took place in 1993. While this may have been department-approved 25 years ago, that does not make it right.
"Blackface is more than just a costume," she wrote. "It invokes a painful history in this country and it is not appropriate in any situation."
An Advocate story in 1993 about the operation noted there were seven undercover police officers involved. Stone and Caruso dressed up to appear black because the two black narcotics officers on the force at that time were too well known and easily recognized in the community, the officers said then.
The story at the time did not include any perspectives condemning or questioning the actions of the officers. However, around the same time in Florida a similar practice brought criticism from the community, as noted in a 1990 St. Petersburg Times story.
"Residents say the police crackdown, while well intended, perpetuated racist assumptions about drug dealers," that article said.
But recalling the Baton Rouge incident, Caruso likened his actions to other undercover work he did during this career, posing as a gay man, a biker and a prostitute. Caruso recalled in this case, he put on a fake gold tooth and wore a Southern University hat.
"You got to dress the part," Caruso said. "It wasn't done offensively."
Neither Caruso nor Phares would describe the makeup as blackface. The Smithsonian Institution describes blackface as a form of racial derision and stereotyping, often through an exaggerated appearance and dialect.
"I have no problem whatsoever with that these officers did," said Phares, who currently serves as chief deputy at the East Feliciana Sheriff’s Office. "For anyone to try to make this some sort of racial issue two decades or more later is just beyond ridiculous.”
But Crump said because of the painful history of blackface in America, one born of stereotyping and demeaning African Americans for decades, it is always wrong.
Paul said there will be not any administrative ramification for Stone, the officer involved and still employed by the agency, because of a statute of limitation on internal officer investigations. However, he noted there are now policies in place to prevent officers from engaging in such practices.