Part 2 of 5
BATON ROUGE – Cpl. Scott Johnson strolled into a meeting with Internal Affairs at the Baton Rouge Police Headquarters. He was there to answer a written complaint a resident had filed against him 10 days earlier.
The complainant wrote that he was trying to get out of the way during his brother’s arrest when Johnson “slam me against the car … cuffed me so tight my wrist welled up, … jammed his hand into my throat and slammed the door on my legs.”
This case – #IAD 009-16 – is one of many reports reviewed as part of an investigation into the Baton Rouge Police Department’s Internal Affairs. Johnson’s recounting of the events sharply departs from the complainant’s account. Recordings of the encounter also diverge from the official findings by the Internal Affairs investigators. But there is also no evidence of any attempt to reconcile the accounts by talking with the complainant. These are recurring themes in many of the use-of-force cases examined for this series.
The police department declined to comment on his case because the incident occurred under a different police chief. It also declined to make the officers involved in the incident and subsequent Internal Affairs investigation available for an interview. The police chief at the time, Carl Dabadie, did not respond to requests for interviews.
According to the file, Johnson met with Internal Affairs investigator Cpl. Kyle Hill to discuss the complaint against him. The two officers went through the details of the dispatch call and the arrest. Hill asked questions and, under oath, Johnson answered them.
Together they reviewed the events of that night:
Johnson and three other officers were dispatched to an anonymous complaint of people fighting outside a home. When they arrived, they encountered a man standing in the yard. He appeared to have been fighting, Johnson said. They spoke with him, then with his mother and then his brother, who was angry that the officers had been called. They exchanged words, and the officers told him to calm down and go inside so they could investigate. He refused. Johnson went to arrest him, but the brother got in the way and pushed him in the chest several times before, Johnson notes in the report: “I was able to handcuff him without incident.”
Both brothers were booked with disturbing the peace, interfering with a police investigation, and in the case of the complainant, battery on a police officer, a felony. In the end, they pleaded to disturbing the peace with offensive words, a misdemeanor.
Johnson’s interview ended 18 minutes after it started. Another corporal who was on the scene was interviewed the same day.
A month after the complaint was made case file IAD 009-16 was found to be “not sustained.” Johnson was not disciplined.
‘I find this entertaining’
The complainant sat on the couch scrolling through a PDF on a laptop in his trailer home situated off a dirt road in Baker, a small town just north of Baton Rouge. It was more than three years after his encounter with Cpl. Johnson.
Two days earlier, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul had announced in a controversial press conference that Blane Salamoni, the officer who had shot and killed Alton Sterling in July 2016, would be leaving the department. It was a death rattle for a combustible case that gave many who saw the video of Salamoni firing three shots into Sterling’s torso outside the Triple S Mart in North Baton Rouge the much-needed reassurance that the officer would no longer be patrolling the city’s streets.
But for Ronnie, the complainant, who asked that his last name not be used in this story because he has family members he wants to protect from the scrutiny that would come with going public, there was no reassurance. According to the file on the laptop in front of him, the officer he said had handled him so roughly in the arrest just months before Sterling died had never been disciplined and was still working as a police officer on the city’s streets. And Ronnie was just reading about the outcome of his complaint more than three years later.
Ronnie alternatively sighed, shook his head with a mix of disappointment and disbelief, and muttered under his breath as he read through the file. “That’s not true,” he would say, or, “That’s a lie.” At one point, despite his frustration with the document, he looked up and blurted out, “I find this entertaining!”
Ronnie’s wife watched, quietly waiting while he read. His 8-year-old daughter, who was there the night of the encounter, watched cartoons in the room down the hall. Ever since that night whenever she sees police officers she sings “Bad Boys,” the recognizable theme song to the reality TV show “Cops.”
It had been Super Bowl night 2016. The Denver Broncos had thumped the Carolina Panthers. Ronnie had watched the game at his grandmother’s house. Afterward, he and one of his brothers had gotten into an argument inside the house. It was so insignificant Ronnie couldn’t remember what it had been about.
The dispute was long over by the time the officers arrived. Ronnie looked out the living room window and noticed the squad cars pull up. He remembered thinking to himself that they must be there for the neighbors since typically that’s who they showed up for.
“That was my first idea. I was like, ‘What the neighbors gone done?’” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, Lord, I hope they ain’t done nothing.’”
But then the officers walked toward their house.
What happened next left Ronnie with a fractured wrist that still bothers him. It’s the result, Ronnie thinks, of Johnson cuffing him too tightly when he arrested him that night on his grandmother’s porch. Two days later, he went to police headquarters, a black nylon and Velcro sling on his right arm and a handwritten account of what happened in hand.
It was the policy at the time that anyone with a complaint against an officer had to negotiate the sprawling building at 9000 Airline Highway, a woman’s hospital that was converted into police headquarters, to fill out a form and give it to an employee for processing. The form notes that to lie about an encounter with the police is a violation punishable by six months imprisonment or a $500 fine or both. Ronnie dutifully completed the form.
Because he never heard back from the police, he had assumed his complaint was still slowly wending its way through the system. But as he sat in his living room years later reading the report, he grumbled in disbelief. It was bad enough, he said, that the Internal Affairs squad had not found any fault with Johnson’s behavior the night of the incident when his wrist was broken. But it added insult to injury to receive no notice of the outcome of the process he initiated.
He had put his faith in the system, he said, and it left him feeling alienated and betrayed. His sense of betrayal only grew as he read on.
He stared at the report, repeatedly shaking his head at how Johnson described the events of the night in question, under oath – Ronnie pushing him in the chest several times before being handcuffed; accusing his mother of encouraging her son to fight it out in the front yard; failing to mention Johnson jamming his hand into Ronnie’s throat; and saying there were no recordings of the encounter that night.
“He lied. That was a lie,” he said. “I love my brother and I will protect my brother, but why would I step in front of you and push you twice with my daughter standing at the screen door so you can pull out your gun and start firing bullets? I love my brother, on record, but I love my daughter more.”
Initially, Ronnie thought Johnson cuffed him to detain him while he arrested his brother and that they would let him go afterward. He was shocked when Johnson dragged him to the squad car.
“It wasn’t necessary because I had never got loud with them. I never was disrespectful towards them. I really was at a loss. I didn’t understand,” he said.
Some of the officer’s account from that night was true, but some of it wasn’t, he said. And he had proof.
Ronnie pulled out a DVD from beneath a pile of mail, papers and a Papa John’s pizza box.
According to the report, Johnson’s patrol car camera wasn’t working the night of the incident. Body cameras also weren’t widely worn yet. But, the camera on another patrol car that responded captured audio. Ronnie said he had no idea this particular recording existed until an assistant state attorney general sent it to him.
Reporters reached out to the assistant state attorney general who said she remembered the case but not the details. She did not respond to requests for an interview.
According to the internal affairs report the dashcam video Ronnie was preparing to listen to didn’t exist. When asked if he ever wondered what happened to Johnson’s recording, Ronnie responded with a sardonic look.
“It got lost somewhere. It got tore up, lost, broken,” he said. “There ain’t no telling. It’s convenient, because if his car did capture what happened, then he’d be in a lot of trouble. That’s why it’s convenient for him, because the stuff that he’s saying isn’t true.”
After futzing around with his TV and trying to find the right program to play the DVD – the technology was too arcane – he pulled out an old laptop and popped it in.
“I never even listened to all of it,” he said as the DVD loaded.
And then the audio began.
The interaction quickly escalates after Ronnie’s brother says he will “deal with” the neighbors he assumes called the police and Johnson accuses him of engaging in “the kind of ‘hood shit” that causes problems. The brother says he only meant that he would talk to the neighbors but the exchange continues to heat up.
The official report alleges that Ronnie was aggressive, yelling at the officers, using profanity and being threatening, none of which is heard on the video.
There is no video of the physical arrest during which Ronnie says he was pulled from the porch, slammed onto a car, roughly handcuffed, hit in the throat and his leg slammed in the door of the patrol car.
They took an oath
The arrest left Ronnie in a quandary. He had never been arrested before. He had never been in any kind of legal trouble. He described himself as the kind of guy who’d go to work, come home, turn around the next morning and go back to work. He didn’t want to create a stir over this incident. He didn’t want to draw attention to the arrest and the scrutiny that would come with it. He would put it behind him and move on.
But his conscience nagged at him. He kept thinking about other cases, cases like Alton Sterling, other men who had been hurt or killed by Baton Rouge police officers. What if he kept his mouth shut, and then a few months or years later he looked up and saw that the officer who broke his wrist had hurt someone else – or even killed them? He had firsthand experience with Johnson. He said a situation that appeared to be over and done with had somehow escalated because of the officer’s aggressive disposition.
“I would be very worried about Scott Johnson as an officer,” he said. “I think that he’s an officer that is eventually going to hurt somebody if they don’t get him on the reins. That’s how I honestly feel.”
Part of the reason Ronnie almost didn’t bother going down to the police headquarters, gathering all his paperwork, taking time off from his job, filling out the internal affairs complaint form and the rest of the rigamarole that went along with trying to get a modicum of justice was his suspicion that, at the end of it all, the outcome was going to be rigged.
“It’s just disturbing because even if he had got a day (of suspension), I still would have been aggravated,” he said. “But I’m even more aggravated by their findings. At least I can know in my heart that, like I said, if he do something bad, at least I can know that I tried to warn them.”
He had wanted to stand up for himself that night. But he wasn’t a fool. He knew better. His mother was there, his daughter was just on the other side of the screen door. If he had pushed the officer or resisted there is no telling what would have happened.
“You can be entitled to stand up for yourself, but nothing good don’t come from it,” he said, the memories of that night fresh in his mind after going through the report. “He’s still walking out on the street. That sums it up.”
It’s not just about the threat that Johnson poses to people like him, he said, but it’s also the threat he poses to other officers.
Some people end up not talking to what he described as the “good officers” when they have information about a crime.
“So you got a double-edged sword and nobody’s touching it,” he said.
And that goes to what he sees as the lack of integrity in the investigation into Johnson’s behavior that Super Bowl night. He listed them off: the questions are leading; the investigator, Hill, expressed no curiosity about some of Johnson’s account; the level of seriousness and scrutiny involved in a routine criminal investigation is nowhere to be found in the report. That undermines the entire system, he said, particularly its credibility in the city’s Black neighborhoods.
“You go in some of these neighborhoods and you have people who don’t want to talk to the law. They don’t want to talk to officers because they are afraid of running into that type of officer,” he said, referring to Johnson.
As Ronnie continued to make his case, his wife’s face grew more and more troubled. Finally, she interjected.
“This is how I feel. I feel like you keep saying Scott Johnson or whatever his name is,” she said, noting that Johnson wasn’t alone that night but was accompanied by three other officers. “In the end of the day, it was all of their faults. They were all there and none of them stopped it.”
The couple went back and forth about who is accountable.
“None of them said anything,” Ronnie’s wife said, clearly frustrated.
Ronnie agreed with her that it was shameful that nobody came forward and spoke honestly about what unfolded, but it was a no-win situation, he said.
Ronnie’s wife wasn’t having it.
“They’re cops,” she said. “They took an oath to serve and protect and they did none of that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that it was Ronnie who told officers he would “deal with” the neighbors. It was Ronnie’s brother who made the statement. The story has been updated.
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 report.
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