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Beatings, buried videos a pattern at Louisiana State Police

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 10:34 AM CDT
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MONROE, La. (AP) — The most violent videos languished for years, lost or ignored in a digital vault. Louisiana State Police troopers and top brass alike would often look the other way, even as officers took to official messaging channels to banter about their brutality.

In one video, white Louisiana state troopers can be seen slamming a Black man against a police cruiser after finding marijuana in his car, throwing him to the ground and repeatedly punching him — all while he is handcuffed.

In another, a white trooper pummels a Black man at a traffic stop 18 times with a flashlight, leaving him with a broken jaw, ribs, wrist and a gash to his head. That footage was intentionally mislabeled and it took 536 days and a lawsuit for police to look into it.

And yet another video shows a white trooper coldcocking a Hispanic drug trafficking suspect as he stood calmly by the highway, an unprovoked attack never mentioned in any report and only investigated when the footage was discovered by an outraged federal judge.

As the Louisiana State Police reel from the fallout of the deadly 2019 arrest of Ronald Greene — a case blown open this year by long-withheld video of troopers stunning, punching and dragging the Black motorist — growing evidence obtained by an Associated Press investigation has revealed a pattern of violence kept shrouded in secrecy.

An AP review of investigative records and never-before-seen videos identified at least a dozen cases over the past decade in which beatings by the Louisiana State Police were often met by troopers and their bosses concealing or ignoring video evidence, deflecting blame and impeding efforts to root out misconduct.

AP’s review – coming amid a widening federal investigation into state police misconduct – found that troopers have made a habit of turning off or muting body cameras during pursuits. When footage is recorded, the agency routinely refuses to release it. And a recently retired supervisor who oversaw a particularly violent clique of troopers told internal investigators this year that it was his “common practice” to rubber-stamp officers’ use-of-force reports without reviewing body-camera video.

In some cases, troopers omitted uses of force such as blows to the head from official reports, and in others, troopers sought to justify their actions by claiming suspects were violent, resisting or escaping, all of which were contradicted by video footage.

Hyper-aggressiveness appears to be winked upon and allowed, said Andrew Scott, a former Boca Raton, Florida, police chief who testifies in use-of-force cases and reviewed videos obtained by AP.

Most of those beaten in the cases AP found were Black, in keeping with the agency’s own tally that 67% of its uses of force in recent years have targeted Black people — double the percentage of the state’s Black population. AP reporting revealed that a secret panel the state police set up this year to determine whether troopers systematically abused Black motorists was just as secretly shut down and its findings scrapped, leaving the agency willfully blind to potential misconduct.

The revelations come as civil rights and Black leaders urge the U.S. Justice Department to launch a broader, “pattern and practice” investigation into potential systemic racial profiling by the overwhelmingly white state police, similar to other probes launched in Minneapolis and Louisville.

It’s not clear how the Louisiana State Police rate of force against Black people compares to that of other states because there is no national benchmark and definitions of uses of force differ between jurisdictions. Activists, however, say it points to a clear problem.

Col. Lamar Davis, the state police superintendent, has refused repeated interview requests from the AP.

The state police have been under intense scrutiny since May when the AP published previously unreleased body camera footage of Greene’s May 10, 2019, arrest at the end of a high-speed chase near Monroe. It showed white troopers stunning, beating and dragging Greene as he pleaded for mercy. One clip that a supervisor denied having for two years showed troopers leaving the heavyset Greene prone and shackled facedown for more than nine minutes.

It was a jarring rush of images in a death that troopers initially blamed on a car crash and that took 474 days to prompt an internal investigation. Gov. John Bel Edwards was among the officials who repeatedly rebuffed requests to release the video.

Recently, a federal investigation into Greene’s death was broadened to include allegations of obstruction of justice involving Louisiana State Police brass, from mid-level supervisors to former and current leaders of the agency.

Among the incidents now under scrutiny is the abrupt scuttling of the secret panel state police set up to investigate possible systemic abuse of Black motorists.

The seven-member panel had been focused on reviewing thousands of hours of body camera footage from about a dozen specific troopers in northern Louisiana’s Troop F, including some of those involved in the beatings of Greene and three other Black motorists.

But according to several people familiar with the matter who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, the panel was abruptly disbanded in July following leaks about its existence and the nature of its work. Agency leaders decided not to investigate cases the panel had already identified as problematic.

Among the cases identified by AP’s review is a March 2019 arrest in northeastern Louisiana’s Ouachita Parish where a trooper was caught on dash-camera video grabbing Black marijuana suspect Deshawn Washington by his hair and slamming the 20-year-old into the hood of a police cruiser, a use of force omitted from the police report. At one point, Washington’s friend, who was also arrested, asked: “Why y’all being so rough?”

In another case from August 2019, Darrell Smith, a white motorist who fled a traffic stop near Baton Rouge, contended in a lawsuit that troopers caught up with him and beat him beyond recognition, causing him to be hospitalized with temporary kidney failure. A use-of-force report leaves unchecked whether body-camera video exists and lists Smith’s injuries as “nonincapacitating.” Smith’s lawsuit says troopers shared a photo of him after the beating with his eyes swollen shut and the caption: “This is what happens when you run from the police.”

Sometimes, videos have been left out of materials turned over to state prosecutors. That was the case last year after troopers beat another Black motorist, Antonio Harris, following a high-speed chase in Richland Parish and hoisted him to his feet by his hair braids.

After the beating, the troopers bragged about it in LOL-peppered group text messages, saying Harris is “gonna have nightmares” and is “still digesting that ass whoopin’.”

Capt. John Peters, the regional troop commander, recently retired after acknowledging he approved troopers’ use-of-force reports that glossed over Harris’ beating without reviewing their body-camera video, records show. Peters, who was also among the commanders to sign off on the use-of-force reports in the Ronald Greene case, told investigators approving such documents without watching the video was his “common practice.” He declined to comment.

One former trooper, Jacob Brown, was perhaps the agency’s most prolifically violent officer in recent years. Records show he tallied 23 uses of force dating to 2015 — 19 on Black people — and he faces charges in three separate beatings.

Video and police records show he beat Aaron Larry Bowman 18 times with a flashlight after deputies pulled him over for a traffic violation near his Monroe home in May 2019. State police didn’t investigate the attack until 536 days later, and only did so after a lawsuit from Bowman, who was left with a broken jaw, ribs and wrist, as well as a gash to his head that required six staples to close.

“I thought I was going to die that night,” Bowman told the AP.

Brown, who resigned in March, failed to report his use of force and mislabeled his body-camera footage in what investigators called “an intentional attempt to hide the video.” He did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Another video obtained by AP involving Brown shows the 2019 arrest of Morgan Blake, who was handcuffed by the side of a Louisiana interstate after troopers found 13 pounds of marijuana in his car.

When Blake repeatedly begged Brown to adjust the cuffs, saying they were irritating an old elbow injury, the trooper refused and slammed Blake twice against a police cruiser and then hurled him to the ground.

Two more troopers jumped on Blake, who was still handcuffed, in the roadside grass. “Stop resisting,” one of them yelled. Footage shows Trooper Randall “Colby” Dickerson punching Blake five times and kneeing him in the side. Dickerson, who faces state charges in the case, declined to comment.

After the beating, Brown told another trooper Blake’s right handcuff hadn’t been on, that he was resisting and, “Hell, he’s trying to get away” — all statements investigators concluded were false.

AP also obtained previously unreleased footage of a state trooper hitting a Hispanic truck driver in 2010 along Interstate 12 in Tangipahoa Parish, north of New Orleans.

The driver, Alejandro Soliz, had been transporting more than 20 kilograms of cocaine and waited on the side of the road as troopers searched his tractor-trailer. One trooper, Jason LaMarca, can be seen approaching Soliz and, without provocation, striking him over the head, collapsing him onto the roadside.

LaMarca, reached by phone, referred questions to a police spokesman, who did not respond.

The federal judge who sentenced Soliz on drug charges five months after the arrest was so troubled by the video he wrote letters to federal authorities and Col. Mike Edmonson, then-superintendent of the state police. The use of force had not been documented in any reports, the judge wrote, adding the video also showed “three other troopers laughing at this act.”

Edmonson ultimately suspended LaMarca for 12 hours, saying the punishment was tempered by what he considered an “outstanding” seizure of $2 million worth of cocaine.

At a disciplinary hearing, Edmonson talked about wanting to send LaMarca a message that striking Soliz was “not why we wear this badge.”

The trooper’s suspension was overturned on appeal.

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