By John Simerman and Lea Skene | NOLA.com | June 23, 2021
A federal investigation into a series of beatings of Black motorists by Monroe-based state troopers has spawned a broader probe into systemic problems within Louisiana State Police, according to an attorney for the family of Ronald Greene.
Attorney Lee Merritt said federal authorities last week outlined an expansive investigation into the embattled state agency in a briefing with Greene’s family. Attorneys for Aaron Bowman, who was struck 18 times with a flashlight in a separate encounter with Troop F troopers in May 2020, a few weeks after Greene’s death, described a similar briefing last week from the feds.
Local federal prosecutors were present, along with the FBI and “a team from the Biden camp,” Merritt said, referring to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“The original investigation of Ronald Greene mushroomed into a larger investigation of the entire agency: policies, practices, procedures, incidents, leadership,” Merritt said they were told. “It’s a wide-ranging investigation.”
The scope of that investigation remains uncertain, as do the consequences for State Police. But Merritt’s account suggests that the Justice Department may be embarking on the kind of “pattern or practice” investigation that has spurred court-enforced policing reforms from New Orleans to Los Angeles and Portland to Puerto Rico.
Those civil investigations, authorized in a 1994 crime bill, were pursued aggressively under the Obama administration, then largely shelved during the Trump administration, under orders from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
President Joe Biden’s administration has resumed them.
In April, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a civil probe of the Minneapolis Police Department in response to the death of George Floyd, who took his last breaths pinned beneath an officer’s knee.
Days later, Garland announced another pattern-or-practice investigation, this one into police in Louisville, Kentucky, following the March 2020 shooting death of Breonna Taylor during a botched drug raid.
Justice Department officials say those investigations are conducted separately from the prosecutions of officers accused of specific civil rights crimes.
The ACLU of Louisiana last week urged federal authorities to open a “pattern or practice” investigation into State Police.
So far, the FBI has acknowledged only an ongoing criminal investigation into Greene’s fatal interaction with a half-dozen Troop F members two years ago. Such criminal prosecutions often are led by Civil Rights Division lawyers from Washington, D.C., working with local federal prosecutors.
That appears to be the case with the federal criminal probe into Greene’s death, Bowman’s beating and other excessive-force allegations against various state troopers. Katherine DeVar, a federal prosecutor in the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division, participated in the updates to family members last week, attorneys said.
Capt. Nick Manale said Wednesday that the agency “has no information” regarding whether the feds were also launching a pattern-or-practice investigation into the agency.
Merritt said prosecutors didn’t use that specific term, but they did outline a probe that goes beyond possible criminal charges against some troopers.
They described “simultaneous” investigations, Merritt said.
Justice Department officials also did not return messages seeking comment.
About 40 local police departments have reached reform agreements with the Justice Department in pattern-or-practice cases across the country over the last 25 years. But only one state police agency — New Jersey State Police — has entered into a consent decree.
“It was somewhat of a relief to hear that their investigation was wide-ranging, that it would include not only these specific incidents but the more systemic issues within Louisiana State Police,” Merritt said.
But Merritt said he was concerned too wide a scope could cause the feds to lose focus on the specific troopers seen pummeling, repeatedly tasing and dragging Greene by his leg shackles after a high-speed chase and crash. None has been charged yet over Greene’s arrest and death.
“Saying, ‘Hey, we discovered a huge glacier underneath this iceberg’ – that’s great,” Merritt said. “You still have to deal with the iceberg itself.”
Merritt said the feds told Greene’s family that they anticipated seating a grand jury to pursue charges against troopers involved in his death, but they wouldn’t say when.
The circumstances surrounding the violent roadside encounter remained hidden until his family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year, alleging that officials falsely told them he died from a car crash.
Since then, body-cam videos leaked to the Associated Press and others released by State Police have revealed horrific details of how Greene was treated, while the autopsy report and other records have raised suspicions of a far-reaching coverup.
Word of a possible federal civil investigation follows an Associated Press report this month describing yet another inquiry: a secret internal review of body camera footage from a dozen or more Troop F troopers. That review reportedly will address allegations that some troopers hid or mislabeled body camera footage to avoid detection and discipline in Greene’s case and others.
Four former Troop F members already face state felony counts over violent incidents in the northeast corner of the state, not including Greene’s death.
With about 66 members, the overwhelmingly White troop patrols a 12-parish region where about 40% of the population is Black.
Ron Haley, an attorney for Bowman, said federal prosecutors told Bowman they plan to bring his case before a grand jury by the end of summer.
Haley said the broader investigation that the feds described seems to meet the criteria for a pattern-or-practice investigation — “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck,” he said. But Haley, like Merritt, said DOJ officials never uttered that term.
Bowman sued State Police after news of the Greene case came to light. Bowman ended up with a fractured arm, broken ribs and stitches on his head. He remains scarred from being beaten with a flashlight, according to his account.
Federal authorities told Bowman last week that they’re investigating several incidents, including the beating that left him severely injured, according to another of his attorneys, Donecia Banks-Miley, who attended the meeting.
Prosecutors also indicated Bowman will soon be allowed to view bodycam footage from his encounter with law enforcement, which so far has led to the arrest of one trooper, Jacob Brown, on state criminal charges. Brown resigned from the agency earlier this year after two additional arrests stemming from use-of-force incidents in 2019 and 2020.
His father, Bob Brown, was the top aide to former Troop F commander Kevin Reeves, who went on to become commander of the entire State Police in 2017 before resigning last year.
There’s no formula for when the DOJ launches a pattern-or-practice investigation, said Sharon Brett, a former DOJ attorney who was involved in civil investigations of police in Chicago, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo., along with Ville Platte police and the Evangeline Parish sheriff’s office in Louisiana.
High-profile incidents and large legal settlements can factor in, “but it also depends a lot on what’s going on in the local community and climate, and whether DOJ is a necessary entity to step in,” Brett said.
“They want to see, is this an agency that’s going to make these reforms on its own, or are they going to need to be forced to make these reforms,” said Brett, now legal director of the ACLU of Kansas.
It can take a few years for the Justice Department to issue public findings from such investigations. Those findings often lead to negotiated reform agreements that can include years of court monitoring.
Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor and president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he anticipates a civil case against State Police will follow on the heels of federal criminal charges against certain troopers.
Goyeneche pointed to a series of controversies that have plagued the state’s premier law enforcement agency in recent years, arguing that they show an agency that can’t be trusted to police itself. Among them:
A test cheating scandal involving State Police training academy cadets morphed into a hazing scandal in 2019 after several of them turned up seriously injured.
Under former Col. Mike Edmonson, a trooper named Jimmy Rogers was allowed to resign in lieu of punishment for repeatedly falsifying the times on traffic tickets. Rogers would later plead guilty to a pair of felonies, after the crime commission pushed for his prosecution.
Edmonson resigned in 2017 following a scandal over his approval of dubious taxpayer-funded travel for troopers to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.
“These things are all symptoms. The problems go back to Mike Edmonson,” Goyeneche said.
Goyeneche predicted a federal consent decree for State Police “within a couple years,” saying he saw parallels with the federal investigation of the New Orleans Police Department after officers killed innocent civilians on the Danziger Bridge days after Hurricane Katrina, then worked to hide it.
“That Danziger Bridge incident opened the eyes of not just the citizenry but also the federal officials. It was a symptom of some profound cultural issues within the NOPD that went back for years if not decades,” Goyeneche said.
“I think that is the trajectory that the Louisiana State Police are on right now.”
In that case, federal criminal charges against five New Orleans Police Department officers came first. The Danziger probe was one of a handful of investigations into questionable uses of force by NOPD officers followed by a coverup.
All of it spawned a sprawling federal investigation into the NOPD, which led to a brutal assessment of the force and one of the nation’s most elaborate police reform pacts — a consent decree now in its ninth year.