Since Alton Sterling’s death in 2016 at the hands of two BRPD officers, Baton Rouge has garnered national attention — and sharp criticism — for its policing practices.
Now, social justice groups are asking the federal government to address problems they say have seen little improvement.
In a public video-conference hosted by The Promise of Justice Initiative Wednesday, Decarcerate Louisiana Executive Director Curtis Davis accused BRPD leaders of abusing their authority and turning a blind eye to systemic failure.
“They have weaponized the police department against our community,” he said. “It’s been this way forever, and we have to get rid of the intellectual dishonesty of our leaders acting like racism does not exist in East Baton Rouge.”
The event coincided with the release of a 21-page letter in which PJI Executive Director Mercedes Montagnes implores the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.
After detailing how local Black residents have historically borne the brunt of police brutality, the missive calls on the DOJ to investigate a “pattern and practice of constitutional violations in East Baton Rouge Parish.”
“Despite decades of police violence and public outrage, incidents of fatal shootings and other forms of police brutality in EBR still abound today,” the letter reads. “Institutional racism and racist sentiment among EBR officers have led to the over-policing of African American communities and youth, discriminatory law enforcement and frequent use of excessive violence against African Americans.”
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In the wake of the 1991 Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police, Congress gave the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and DOJ authority to conduct civil pattern-and-practice investigations that go beyond individual occurrences to determine if a law enforcement agency displays systemic failings.
Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, if the DOJ finds unlawful patterns or practices within a local police department, that agency, in most cases, faces two disciplinary outcomes. It either has to submit to federal oversight through what’s known as a consent degree. Or, it has to pledge to remedy identified problems within a certain timeframe.
The call for federal help fixing BRPD reflects a resurgent movement to raise accountability standards for local police.
Activists in Minneapolis and Louisville — which saw some of the highest-profile Black Lives Matter protests last summer after deaths of George Floyd and Brionna Taylor, respectively — have asked for similar federal inquiries.
Over the last several years, the DOJ has probed police departments in major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans, as well as in Ferguson, Missouri, Newark, New Jersey and Missoula, Montana.
According to a report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, federal investigations can take years to complete and often elicit complaints from local police departments about straining resources to meet court-set accountability metrics. Activists, meanwhile, have criticized resulting settlements for failing to fix systemic problems.
Still, the Pew research found, such interventions have also led to innovative policing and helped restore trust between agencies and the public.
In Baton Rouge, many activists say the issues plaguing BRPD have pushed the community past its breaking point.
Miriam Thorne, a law clerk for The Promise of Justice Initiative, said BRPD has continued to inflict excessive force on civilians in the five years since Sterling’s death.
Among those incidents was the time on New Year’s Day 2020 when officers invasively searched a minor in public, or four months later when an officer choked Black work-release detainee Bradford Skinner.
Last fall, 20-year BRPD veteran Chris Kuhn was found to have posted racist, sexist and other offensive language on an online blog, making him the latest of several department members to be accused of making bigoted comments. He later resigned.
In June this year, an officer allegedly pressured a young women to meet up at a warehouse, where she says he made sexual advances towards her. This past February, an officer allegedly threw a 13-year-old Black boy to the ground and choked him.
BRPD spokesman L’Jean McKneely said the department has been forthcoming about its problems and attempts to address them.
“We constantly review our policies and procedures to make sure that we’re doing the best policing (we can) at this time,” he said.
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Members of PJI and other groups disagree.
Clearly, Thorne said, the pattern and practice of abusive policing persist to this day — often with little to no recourse.
“There has been shockingly little accountability for individual officers who perpetuate violence against civilians and insufficient interrogation of department-wide practices,” she said. “The community now asks the federal government to come and put a stop to unlawful police brutality in the parish.”
Many Baton Rouge residents brutalized by police are Black children, said Madalyn Wasilczuk, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies policing.
Out of 53 children and teenagers who were bitten by police dogs between 2017 and 2019, 51 were Black, and the vast majority were boys, she said. Of those 53 children, most were stopped by police for non-violent theft.
Victims of police violence often become jaded, Wasilczuk said.
“They are resigned to the fact that this is how their communities are policed,” she said. “They’re resigned to the fact that there’s very little they can do about it, and they have very little faith that anyone in the legal system cares what happens to them.”
By failing to fix a status quo “born from a history of oppression and racial hierarchy,” Wasilczuk added, Baton Rouge leaders have done little to make them think otherwise.