The five-part investigative project “In the Dark,” a deep dive into the Internal Affairs Division inside the Baton Rouge Police Department, will begin publishing on Verite on Monday (April 17).
The series relied on dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents, but it began in the parking lot of Triple S Mart where Alton Sterling died from six gunshot wounds delivered by a police officer sworn to protect and serve.
The shooting of Sterling in 2016 exposed a deep mistrust between the police and the people they policed, especially in mostly Black North Baton Rouge. The fatal shooting is described by many residents as their George Floyd moment – a time of reckoning with their troubled relationship with the police. It happened four years before the rest of the country had its reckoning. That mistrust, many said, was born of a lack of accountability within the department.
When those residents peacefully took to the streets a few days after Sterling’s killing to express that mistrust and unfair treatment, they were met with tanks, beatings and military weapons.
The protesters say they also were confronted with contradictory commands, excessive force and illegal arrests at the height of the demonstrations on July 10.
But there was only one internal affairs complaint investigated from that notorious day. It was a complaint made against a police officer for standing up for the protesters who were allegedly getting mistreated and illegally arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.
That is just one of the stories that Verite News reports on in this series In the Dark, which investigates the inner workings of the BRPD’s Internal Affairs.
A description of Internal Affairs from the department’s website reads: “For the BRPD to effectively function in ridding the city of crime and disorder, it is essential that the public has confidence in the integrity of law enforcement. To maintain this confidence,” it promises that, “grievances will be impartially handled.”
But the citizens we spoke to found their confidence profoundly shaken.
The system let them down, even as they never stopped holding out hope for that same system. For some, it was a matter of dignity — an officer disrespected them. For others, it was a matter of injury — a broken wrist, shattered teeth. These are citizens who trusted in the system to police itself.
In The Dark comes as the BRPD and its Internal Affairs unit boast of reforms aimed at a rigorous pursuit of the truth when probing civilian complaints. Some have welcomed those changes, while others have dismissed the process as stacked against police.
It is a conflict that is playing out in communities across the state and the nation.
The stories in this series look at the recent past but they touch on a timeless theme for a democracy. Our messy form of government challenges us with a tricky question: Who guards the guardians?
For Plato, the answer rested in philosopher kings. In Baton Rouge and other towns and cities across the country, we have to settle for an often overlooked agency within an agency that in some ways the whole system depends upon: Internal Affairs.
This investigative series was produced with the support of Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE), with additional support provided by The Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Barbara Gray, a research methods professor who oversees the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Research Center, contributed to this series.
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