Part 3 of 5
BATON ROUGE – It was a 21st-century Bloody Sunday brought to you in high-definition.
Just as protesters had done in crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma decades before, the young people who had gathered in Baton Rouge on a beautiful summer afternoon on July 10, 2016, were there to protest a police killing.
Instead of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965, the victim this time was Alton Sterling, a local street vendor. Days earlier Sterling’s killing had been captured on security footage from the corner store where he had been shot by Baton Rouge Police Officer Blane Salamoni. The footage of the fatal shooting was broadcast around the globe.
The several hundred peaceful, mostly young protesters, a mix of races and ethnicities, met at the state Capitol to denounce the Baton Rouge Police Department’s tactics and demand justice for Sterling. Afterward, they marched to nearby downtown Baton Rouge holding up handmade signs that read “BR Love” and “Stop Killing Us.”
Officers from the city police department, East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office and Louisiana State Police waited for them. They were outfitted in riot gear and gas masks and armed with semi-automatic rifles.
Video footage, photos and federal lawsuits portray the chaos that followed. Officers projected a dystopian front as they swept through, charging and chanting. A BearCat, an armored military vehicle, rumbled down the tree-lined streets. For the first and only time in the city’s history, the department unleashed a weapon designed for the Iraq War on the protesters. A sonic cannon, an LRAD – short for Long Range Acoustic Device – emitted a pulsing, high-pitched stomach-churning blast of sound. Protesters screamed in terror. Officers dragged them through the streets. They were tackled and beaten.
Some people who were there that day remember thinking they were going to be killed.
More than 200 arrests were made, including journalists assigned to cover what had started off as a peaceful demonstration. Nearly all the charges were later thrown out, leaving only those for violations unrelated to the protest.
But, despite the documented violent and aggressive tactics, the deployment of a military weapon against civilians, and the unlawful mass arrests, the Baton Rouge Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigated only a single officer for his actions that day.
He wasn’t investigated for tackling an elderly gentleman in church clothes or throwing a female protester to the ground, both incidents captured by reporters that day. Nor was he questioned about the forgery of signatures on pre-printed affidavits of arrests, some of which mistakenly described the protests as having taken place miles away at police headquarters, as documented in federal court filings.
This lone investigation was for something totally different. It wasn’t for something that he did. It was for something he said.
And the complainant wasn’t a civilian or a protester or a resident or a member of the press as it is in many internal affairs complaints. The complainants were members of the Baton Rouge Police Department. And the complaint? The officer had questioned the legality of the police response at the protest that day.
‘It was just a normal conversation’
The officer who endured the department’s Internal Affairs scrutiny was Marcus Thompson, then an eight-year law enforcement veteran with three-and-a-half years with the Baton Rouge Police Department.
For raising the issue of some arrests for obstructing a roadway, Thompson was accused by his fellow officers of Conduct Unbecoming an Officer.
Thompson’s case is one of many Internal Affairs reports reviewed as part of the In the Dark investigation into the department’s internal policing. It reveals a department more willing to go after an officer for criticizing over-aggressive policing than the aggressive policing itself.
His disciplinary record at the time was clean. The charge of Conduct Unbecoming occupied the first and only line on an otherwise empty chart that for some of his colleagues details long histories of previous disciplinary complaints.
Thompson declined requests for comment, as did the police department. The department also declined to make the officers involved in the incident and subsequent internal affairs investigation available for interviews. Former Police Chief Carl Dabadie did not respond to requests for interviews.
The following account was detailed in the Internal Affairs file IA #045-16.
The accusations against Thompson came from his colleagues on the force who had witnessed his statements. They had brought their concerns up the chain of command to a corporal. The accusation made its way to a captain who, the next day, wrote to Internal Affairs alerting them of the concerns.
“Marcus Thompson was telling the X1 5’s that BRPD police officers are violating there (sic) civil rights. And how f***ed up that is,” the email read. “We had one docile 10-15 turn into an ass when Marcus said that.”
In short, the email indicated that Thompson was agitating the arrestees, a “10-15” or “X15” is an internal code for someone the police had taken into custody, and that was making them difficult to contend with.
The allegations were then detailed in nearly identical letters ordered by their sergeant and submitted by Officers Jordon Lear and Taylor DeRousselle nearly two weeks after the protest. The corporal whom they had complained to the day of the incident submitted a letter as well. His name was redacted in the file.
The officers had been assigned to the prisoner-processing area in the Training Academy at police headquarters on the day of the demonstration when an arrested protester was brought in, Lear and DeRousselle wrote. While the arrestee was seated nearby, Thompson questioned the legality and motive of the arrest. He said the man had been brought in for obstructing a roadway, a law that Thompson said no one could have violated because the police were obstructing the roadway themselves and the protesters had been following orders to move out of it. The officers wrote that Thompson had said that police were violating people’s rights.
The officers responded that the arrestee had broken the law and his rights had not been violated. Thompson responded by mumbling and “insinuating that ‘we’ were racist,” both the letters read. Thompson is Black.
They noted that the arrestee thanked Thompson, who he called “his brother,” setting off the term in quotation marks in the letters. The two then “began to play off each other,” according to the officers. The arrestee, believing his rights had been violated, became “unruly and uncooperative,” they wrote. Concerned about safety, they notified a corporal in the chain of command.
In his own letter, the corporal wrote that he informed a sergeant and Thompson was reassigned. He had been concerned that Thompson would continue to make similar statements as arrestees were brought in. Hundreds of people were processed that day and had he made those comments within earshot of a group rather than just one, the officers might have had to use force in self-defense and to control the group, the corporal suggested.
“This would create an unnecessary liability for the department,” he wrote.
A few weeks after the Sterling protests, Thompson sat with his representative, a sergeant whose name was redacted in the files, while an Internal Affairs officer questioned him about the incident. What was the arrestee’s demeanor when he was brought in? After the legality of the arrest was questioned? Did he ever become unruly? Uncooperative? Did Thompson make the comment that the other officers were violating the arrestees’ rights? Did he bring his concerns to a supervisor?
The arrestee was always calm, Thompson replied. No, he never became unruly or uncooperative. He didn’t bring the issue to the attention of a supervisor because he’d felt it was just a conversation between officers that never became hostile or felt like it would escalate.
“It was just a normal conversation,” he said. “Well, I felt it was.”
The investigator then turned the questioning over to the sergeant Thompson had brought as his representative.
The sergeant ran through the basics first: how long Thompson had been in law enforcement, how many years he’d been with the department, the number of arrestees in the processing area during the incident and the charge the protester faced. He then read off the law for “Simple Obstruction of a Highway,” stating that he agreed with Thompson’s interpretation of the law.
“Sgt. [REDACTED] stated that he does not think that simply crossing the street to get to neutral ground fits the statue (sic),” the file reads.
The sergeant then asked if Thompson would bring misbehavior by another officer to his attention. Yes, Thompson replied. But he would try to correct the officer himself before getting them in trouble.
Thompson said the interaction didn’t get in the way of his job, and that his comments were directed at the officers making the questionable arrest, not the arrestee.
The sergeant brought Thompson’s attention to the part of the officer’s complaints that referred to the arrestees’ use of the phrase “his brother.”
“I guess that he appreciates an officer being his color maybe taking his side,” he said. “When I grew up, friends, we all called each other brother.”
Finally, the sergeant asked Thompson the question at the heart of the charge he was facing: Did the discussion bring “dishonor or disgrace” to the department?
“No sir,” Thompson replied.
The sergeant ended the interview by asking the investigator to exonerate Thompson instead of finding it not sustained if Thompson were cleared of the charge – a clear-cut outcome that leaves no doubt as to whether he was in the wrong or not.
‘I believe in doing right for right’
Internal Affairs investigators found the accusations against Thompson to be, in the parlance of the office, not sustained despite the sergeant’s plea for an exoneration. That finding meant Thompson was found neither guilty nor innocent of the accusation. Short of exoneration, it meant only that Internal Affairs found there was not sufficient evidence to prove wrongdoing. Although the investigation made it to the final stage of the process – an administrative review – he did not face any discipline for his actions.
But that doesn’t mean he avoided consequences.
A retired Baton Rouge police officer with decades on the force who runs a catering service in the parish said he knew Thompson’s name but was not aware of this incident until recently. Over the years, the retired officer has organized a number of fundraisers for members of the department. Thompson got injured in an accident a few years after the protests. When the retired officer heard about the accident he said he was happy to hold a fundraiser for him. He brought his barbeque pit to District 1 on Plank Road and made the officers chicken, ribs, red beans and rice with cake and bread.
“Didn’t even have half the police officers respond,” he said.
He was perplexed. Earlier that year, he had hosted a fundraiser for a white officer whose step-daughter was having seizures and his family needed help paying the hospital bills. The retired officer remembered that at that fundraiser they were able to raise over $9,000. But in the case of Thompson, it was a fraction of that.
“I think we raised like $2,500,” he said. “BRPD got over 600 police officers, and that’s all the money y’all will give this guy?”
It was a mystery to him why so few people showed up and why they raised so little money.
“We did the other thing for the white guy – we ran out of food! Some of them still gave donations,” he said.
It wasn’t until he learned about the nature of the Internal Affairs investigation against Thompson that it all became clear to him, he said. Thompson had a target on his back after criticizing the department.
“They don’t want to help each other. I’m not going to help them, period,” he said. “I turned down a paying job to go do something for free. And they won’t even come support their own brother in blue.”
“Backing the Blue.” That was essentially what Thompson had been investigated for not doing when he questioned the arrest that day.
But on that matter, Thompson was unequivocal. When he was questioned by Internal Affairs about whether “his opinion or disagreement with the arrest would have prevented him from backing a fellow officer if the arrestee would have become hostile” as the file reads, there was no ambiguity in his answer.
“Yes, I’m going to always back the officers. Yes, officer safety first,” Thompson answered. “I want every officer to go home to their family. I love what I do. I’m just not in agreement with violation (sic) peoples’ rights. I believe in doing right for right. I didn’t join the job to do wrong for wrong.”
‘In the office’
One question remained unanswered during the internal affairs investigation into Thompson’s behavior: Why, despite all the bedlam that day, was it only his defense of the rights of the protesters that earned the scrutiny of the department? The lawsuit and media reports from that day provided a plethora of incidents that could have earned the formal attention of internal affairs investigators.
There was the use of the Long Range Acoustic Device by the BRPD, on loan from the Louisiana State Police, without any safety training. They had never used it before and an officer who had been manning the weapon that day said he was “messing around” with it on protesters. There were beatings in the street, strip searches of teenage girls, and the use of handcuffs so tight that they caused injuries.
There were the perjured affidavits of probable cause that led two of the defendants – BRPD officers Jonathan Abadie and Willie Williams – to say during the trial that they had pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination instead of testifying about fabricating false evidence and committing perjury during a deposition. Legal and law enforcement experts said it was a highly unusual incident that they had never seen before.
All of this was ignored by the division inside the BRPD responsible for holding itself to account and to, as it reads in the department’s website, to restore “confidence in the integrity of law enforcement.” A possible answer to that question came to light on the morning of Feb. 6, 2023, at the Russell B. Long Federal Building and United States Courthouse.
It took nearly seven years for them to get their day in court. Imani v. City of Baton Rouge, case number 3:17-cv-00439, was finally being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. All 14 of the plaintiffs, two reporters and a dozen of the protesters who were arrested that day, were in court before the trial began. It lasted a week. After the defense rested the case was put on hold so that the two sides could negotiate. A week later, on Feb. 15, the Baton Rouge Metro Council voted by a narrow margin to approve a settlement of $1.17 million for the plaintiffs.
But before the settlement on the morning of Feb. 6, the trial featured a spirited back-and-forth between Orscini Beard II, a 22-year veteran of the BRPD and Internal Affairs supervisor, and civil rights attorney William Most.
Most asked if Internal Affairs had started any investigations into any of the allegations that surfaced from that day.
Beard said they had not.
Most asked Beard if the protest that day was “an all hands on deck” situation for the department, with divisions from across the department providing support.
Then why, Most wanted to know, didn’t Internal Affairs open investigations into what they saw at the protest?
Beard’s response provided an answer to what Thompson’s investigation could not.
“Our chief at the time, Chief Dabbadie, he ordered everyone from IA to stay at headquarters. On Airline Highway. We were at the office that day,” Beard said.
“In the office,” Most asked.
“Yes sir,” Beard responded. “In the office.”
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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