In agreements with the officers investigated in the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, the Baton Rouge Police Department promised to keep paying them until they were convicted or their cases resolved — an arrangement questioned by Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and others.
Carl Dabadie, at the time Baton Rouge's police chief, signed the agreements in September 2016 two months after the shooting, stating that if officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II were charged with a crime, they would remain "on paid administrative leave until (they are) convicted in a criminal matter, or until any criminal investigation is otherwise terminated, whichever comes first."
The documents were released in March after federal and state investigations were completed and prosecutors had declined to press charges against the two white officers accused in the shooting death of Sterling, a black man.
"When you think about the implications, that's a really bizarre provision because it means that even if the chief has video evidence — uncontroverted evidence — that the officer engaged in misconduct, the chief still can't fire that officer until the criminal prosecution has been completed," said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. "That's crazy."
The documents also state the officers "believe (they) will be exonerated in all investigations."
The "until conviction" piece of the agreements that critics found most surprising didn't end up coming into play because both federal and state prosecutors declined to press charges against Salamoni and Lake.
The department released the agreements along with other internal affairs documents in March when Chief Murphy Paul announced his decision to fire Salamoni and suspend Lake for three days. Paul declined to comment on the documents, which were signed before he took office in January.
Dabadie said in a recent interview that he never believed the officers would remain on paid leave had they been indicted, despite the language contained in the agreements. He thought they would be disciplined and taken off paid leave soon after the conclusion of the criminal investigation: when a decision was announced on whether the officers would be charged.
"I was not planning for (Salamoni and Lake) to remain on leave during the entire case," he said. "That wasn't the intent of the agreement."
Dabadie said he was under the impression that the agreements simply laid out the terms of civil service law governing internal investigations.
Salamoni's attorney John McLindon declined to comment on the agreements, and Lake's attorney Kyle Kershaw did not respond to requests for comment.
Lawyers for the Baton Rouge Police Department Union were involved in drafting the agreements, according to union leadership.
Union attorney Chris Sonnier did not respond to requests for comment. The East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney's Office also declined to comment, citing pending discipline because both officers have appealed their punishments to the civil service board.
But language in the agreements suggest they were developed after the U.S. Department of Justice asked the Police Department to suspend its internal affairs investigation pending the federal criminal investigation — common practice to prevent information gathered in one from tainting the other.
The officers agreed in the documents to suspend the 60-day deadline for completion of their internal affairs investigation and waived their right to obtain copies of investigative materials during that time, which they are allowed under the Louisiana Police Officer's Bill of Rights.
Floyd Falcon, attorney for the Baton Rouge Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, said a law enforcement agency would need permission from the officers involved or from the local civil service board in order to extend the internal investigation beyond the allotted time frame established by state law. Falcon said he could not recall a similar agreement but did not find the terms themselves abnormal.
But critics said the investigations in this case dragged out too long while taxpayers footed the bills.
Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said she became aware of the agreements only recently and found them "inappropriate." She said residents have expressed "grave concerns" that Salamoni and Lake were on paid administrative leave for so long — concerns that Dabadie overlooked in opening the door to extending those terms even longer.
Her criticisms of the former chief are not new. The two butted heads for months before Dabadie finally announced his resignation last summer.
"My consistent message was that I viewed (Dabadie) as an honorable man," she said. "However I always felt that in order to close the gap between the citizens and the police department, we needed new leadership. … This type of information substantiates that position."
But Union President Sgt. C. Bryan Taylor argued that the argreements were needed because Broome and other public figures were "so averse to Blane and Howie's situation and … calling for premature termination."
Broome sent a letter to Dabadie in May 2017 asking him to consider firing Salamoni — based on video footage showing what she considered clear violations of department policy — while the state criminal investigation was still ongoing. Dabadie responded that he was following standard procedure and waiting until all evidence had been collected.
Taylor said he believes the agreements were signed as a precaution: "This case is uncharted territory for everyone … but whoever had the foresight to put that in place was brilliant."
Donovan Livaccari, an attorney specializing in law enforcement discipline cases and a former New Orleans police officer, said he believes the Sterling case provides "a perfect example of how police officers can get caught up in political nonsense, for lack of a better word."
While acknowledging the importance of honoring officers' due process rights, experts also emphasized the possible implications of keeping someone on paid leave for years — even after the officer has been indicted.
Smith, who now heads the Washington Lawyers' Committee but previously served with the U.S. Department of Justice, said practices such as extended paid leave can create a sense among members of the public that officers are not held accountable for their actions.
"If you're living in a community of color or a community of poverty, you see your sons and daughters, your brothers and uncles arrested and prosecuted on scant evidence, losing their jobs and their homes, their kids maybe going into foster care," Smith said. "But a police officer stays on payroll and is given the benefit of the doubt — the presumption of innocence — not only in the criminal process but in the employment process as well. … This is a very visible demonstration to communities that police officers are above the law."