By James Finn and John Simerman | The Advocate | June 9, 2022

The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday announced a major civil rights investigation of Louisiana State Police over troopers’ use of excessive force and claims of racially biased policing — the kind of intensive federal probe that often lands police agencies under court supervision for years.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke and all three U.S. attorneys in the state announced the civil “pattern-or-practice” investigation at the federal courthouse in Baton Rouge, pledging a thorough review of a state agency beset in recent years by a parade of scandals.

None have drawn more public condemnation than the brutal May 2019 incident that first drew the attention of federal investigators: The violent death of Ronald Greene, a Black barber, on a dark roadside in northeast Louisiana. Family members say they were told Greene died from injuries suffered in a crash following a high-speed chase. But leaked body-camera video showed state troopers repeatedly tasing Greene, beating him and forcing him prone on his belly for several minutes as he howled for mercy before going limp.

Allegations of a far-reaching cover-up over Greene’s death have roiled the agency for more than a year. A legislative committee recently called on Gov. John Bel Edwards to explain what he knew and when about Greene’s death. Edwards was informed of the DOJ investigation before Thursday’s news conference.

“It is deeply troubling that allegations of systemic misconduct exist that would warrant this type of investigation,” Edwards said, “but it is absolutely critical that all Louisianans, especially African Americans and other people of color, have their faith, confidence, and trust in public safety officers restored.”

Along with Greene’s death, State Police have been under scrutiny over the violent arrests of other Black drivers by members of Troop F, a predominantly White unit based in Monroe that patrols the northeastern corner of the state. While the controversy has been centered there, the sheer number of complaints has raised doubts about the culture and practices across the state’s top law enforcement agency. The Associated Press last year found that, agency-wide, two-thirds of use-of-force incidents in recent years involved Black subjects, though Black people make up a little less than one-third of the state’s population.

Clarke said there was “significant justification to open this investigation,” citing public reports of troopers using excessive force repeatedly against minor traffic scofflaws; targeting Black residents for traffic enforcement or uses of force; and hurling racial slurs.

“Our investigation will be thorough and comprehensive,” Clarke said. “Our goal is to promote transparency and accountability, which ultimately will increase public trust.”

In a memo to agency employees on Thursday, State Police Superintendent Col. Lamar Davis noted recent policy changes that include bans on chokeholds and the use of impact weapons, such as a baton or flashlight, to the head and neck. Davis pledged to work with federal investigators.

“I have assured them that we will cooperate fully with their investigation and make available all personnel and areas of our agency,” he wrote. “We have nothing to hide and can only benefit from learning.”

The new probe into State Police marks the fifth pattern-or-practice investigation of local police launched by Justice Department officials under the Biden administration, and the first in decades targeting a statewide agency, Clarke said. Under Biden, the Justice Department previously announced investigations of police in Louisville, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Mount Vernon, New York.

Such investigations were popular under the Obama administration, but largely shelved during the Trump presidency under a directive from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who viewed them negatively.

Christy Lopez, a DOJ deputy chief of civil rights under Obama who led pattern-or-practice investigations into New Orleans, Chicago and other city police forces, questioned the limited focus of the investigation into State Police, which she described as a “worthy target.”

“The more difficult question for me is why there’s no focus on stops and searches,” said Lopez, now a Georgetown Law professor.

She noted the previous four civil investigations launched under the Biden administration were “pretty extensive” in scope.

“What strikes me here is looking at (State Police), knowing how much of their work involves stops and searches, and having that not be a focus of investigation has me scratching my head a bit,” she said.

Lopez sees a consent decree as a likely outcome.

“The department works very hard not to even launch an investigation unless it’s pretty certain there’s some there there,” she said.

Since last year, when the Associated Press published leaked body camera footage from Lt. John Clary, the ranking officer at the scene of Greene’s arrest, critics have called for just such an investigation of State Police. Among them: the ACLU of Louisiana, U.S. Rep. Troy Carter and the Legislative Black Caucus.

Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, who leads the caucus, praised the feds’ announcement.

“Many of our citizens feel that the system has failed them, and the Ronald Greene case is one very important example of that,” he said. “With this investigation, we hope to see true change in our systems, here at home in Louisiana and across the country.”

Attorneys for Greene’s family called it a “monumental step towards a true systematic shift.”

“We have remained steadfast that an independent investigation into State Police is the only way to achieve real change,” attorneys Lee Merritt, Ron Haley and Mark Maguire said in a joint statement. “Now we have that. We would not be here if it were not for the brave families and victims who spoke up when few would listen.”

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, praised the announcement while insisting the special committee will “continue to hold hearings in our search for the truth surrounding the death of Ronald Greene and hold accountable those responsible.”  The committee is reviewing, among other things, alleged wiping of cell phones and missing video footage.

Clarke said DOJ investigators will review training, how the agency investigates complaints and disciplines deputies. Investigators will pore over agency records, ride along with troopers and solicit input from community members, as well as command staff, she said. They also will review the state’s oversight of the agency.

The probe spans three different federal districts — the Middle District, the Western District, and the Eastern District — a level of cooperation Clarke called “unprecedented.”

If DOJ finds a pattern or practice of constitutional violations, it will issue a report. The result in many cases is a consent decree, a civil settlement spelling out steps the police agency must take under a judge’s watch.

That’s the outcome that Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he expects. Goyeneche called Greene’s violent death a symptom of deep-rooted problems “going back a decade” at State Police.

“Consent decrees are never the result of a single incident. They’re only the result of long-term, unaddressed problems,” Goyeneche said. “This is something that is long overdue, and I think the Louisiana State Police will benefit and the people of Louisiana will benefit from this type of investigation.”

A wide-ranging pattern-or-practice investigation into the NOPD in 2011 resulted in a 492-point blueprint for reform that remains in place today.

That consent decree, one of nearly a dozen now active across the country, covers virtually every aspect of policing. A federal judge recently said she expects NOPD to begin exiting the agreement this summer.

Such agreements have drawn criticism from many officers and politicians. Among them, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has argued that restraints placed on officers under the NOPD agreement have hamstrung the department’s ability to fight crime.

The investigation into State Police appears narrower in scope. Clarke said it will focus on two specific areas: Whether the agency has a pattern or practice of using excessive force; and whether it engages in racially discriminatory policing. Goyeneche, though, said he expects investigators to dig deeper and wider.

“Once they take the cap off the tube of toothpaste, they’re going to expand their investigation. If there’s a pattern or practice of misconduct, a lot of it is going to start with training and supervision.,” he said. “If they enter into a consent decree, it will impact every area of operations within Louisiana State Police. You don’t fix it by putting on a band-aid or patching one or two blemishes.”

The civil investigation is separate from what Clarke described as an ongoing criminal investigation by the feds into the actions of troopers and officers during Greene’s arrest. Clarke declined to offer details.

One former trooper, Jacob Brown, faces a federal civil rights charge over a different incident, weeks after Greene’s death, that left a Monroe man, Aaron Bowman, brutally beaten. Brown allegedly pummeled Bowman with a flashlight to the head, 18 times. Brown has pleaded not guilty.

Brown, who also was arrested in connection with two other traffic stops, is the son of Bob Brown, a former top-ranking State Police official. Bob Brown had served as chief of staff to Col. Kevin Reeves, the former State Police superintendent who resigned in October 2020 as scandal began to swirl around the agency.

Union Parish District Attorney John Belton has said he plans to present evidence against troopers involved in Greene’s arrest to a state grand jury.

An autopsy report on Greene’s death has been amended to remove agitated delirium as a cause of Greene’s death, while downplaying the effects of the vehicle crash. The revised autopsy, based on additional records, cited as factors “cocaine use, conducted electrical weapon application, physical struggle, prone restraint, blunt force injury, and neck compression.”

A State Police use-of-force expert offered a less clinical take, telling a House committee in March that he believed Greene’s death amounted to “torture and murder.”