Part 4 of 5
BATON ROUGE – Nikita had known the old man for nearly two decades and she could not recall a single time she had seen him cry. But when she opened the door on that Tuesday evening in 2014, she found her friend and father figure, Edward Butler, 73, in tears, his face a rictus of fear and confusion.
His shirt had been torn open. Some of the buttons were missing or dangling by a thread. Butler’s chest was exposed showing the scar from heart surgery he had undergone a few months earlier. He labored to breathe. Between gasps for air he tried to explain what happened. She thought maybe he had been mugged. They lived in a dangerous part of Baton Rouge surrounded by abandoned houses and homeless shelters near the Greyhound Station.
They stopped him, he said to her.
She was confused.
“They stopped you for what?” she asked.
He clutched a piece of paper in his hand. She took it from him as she attempted to calm him down.
It wasn’t criminals that left Butler like this – it was the police. The piece of paper was a ticket issued by Baton Rouge Police Officer Brandon Blackwell.
“When I read the paper, the summons, it said that he was stopped because he didn’t have a light on the bike,” said Nikita, who asked to not use her last name for fear of reprisal from the police department. “But you slammed him on the car for a light on the bike?”
It didn’t surprise her, she said. Police on patrol in her neighborhood had intimidated her while she had been hanging out on her porch.
“They look at the crime rate and not the people – everybody is not bad, everybody is not a criminal, everybody’s not on drugs. They’re looking at paperwork,” she said. “They’re not looking at us like humans.”
‘It was a thing you don’t do to a man’
Butler was doubtful anyone would ever see his complaint: IAD #004-15. But that didn’t stop him from making it.
“A lot of people, they don’t report what happens to them when they’re mistreated,” he said. “There are some racist police, and they use it to show you: ‘We are the boss.’”
He went to police headquarters nine days after the incident. Butler thought about how he was treated that evening. It was not right. For him, it was a matter of simple decency.
“It was a thing that you don’t do to a man,” he said. “You don’t handle me like that. I would never handle you like that. Never. Because I know you wouldn’t like it. You wouldn’t want me putting my hand on you like that.”
In the summer of 2019, two reporters from New York tracked him down, bringing news of his complaint. It was the first time he had heard anything about it since he made it five years earlier.
The Internal Affairs department had completed its investigation and reached a conclusion. He would finally learn the outcome of his complaint. Although he was disappointed by the department’s decision, Butler was ecstatic that someone out in the world had seen it. It had taken a while. He was almost 80 years old by the time the two strangers showed up at the door with the 23-page file.
Butler, Nikita and several friends gathered in the living room at a mutual friend’s house to review the report. The house was clean, sparse and sunny. Butler’s eyesight wasn’t what it used to be so he listened as the report was read to him.
Butler’s case is one of many Internal Affairs reports reviewed as part of the In the Dark investigation into the Baton Rouge Police Department’s handling of citizen complaints. His account of that evening sharply departed from what the police said happened. And it was written in euphemistic language to conceal the violent and degrading nature of the incident.
The police department declined to comment on his case because the event 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. Former Police Chief Carl Dabadie did not respond to requests for interviews.
Butler shook his head with disappointment as he heard the results of the investigation, and police officials’ characterization of the encounter.
Butler said he was riding his bike that evening just a few blocks from his home. Even at the age of 73, Butler loved to ride his bike.
“I was always on my bicycle going places, coming back,” he said.
He rode a white Giant Sedona. He rode it everywhere. He had gone to the store and was riding back to Nikita’s house to pay her a visit. Nikita, a neighbor, was like a daughter to him. It was on the way to her house that the officer pulled him over in his squad car.
Butler said he was born and raised in and around Baton Rouge and he had ridden his bike for years at night without a “forward-facing lamp.” He had never been given a warning from the police let alone been manhandled for not having one.
Butler stopped riding his bike as the officer approached. The officer said: “What’s up, Daddy?” Butler explained he was going to visit a friend. Officer Blackwell said he “didn’t want to hear all that.”
He yanked Butler off his bike, tore his shirt, and slammed him on the car, according to the complaint. As Butler protested Blackwell told him to shut up and cussed at him. He picked him up off the ground, roughly bent him over and handcuffed him. Blackwell then threw him into the backseat of the patrol car where Butler sat dazed wondering how a leisurely nighttime ride had turned into a nightmare.
‘Socially acceptable for common usage’
In the complaint, Butler states “he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong” the night he was riding his bike, and “the only reason he was pulled over is because he was black.”
The allegation Butler made against Blackwell was, in the department’s official language, two different violations: one for Command of Temper and another for Use of Force.
This is how Internal Affairs summarized Butler’s complaint:
“Complaints were (1) that he was stopped only because he was black, (2) that he was aggressively pulled off his bicycle for no reason without receiving any verbal commands, and (3) he sustained an unspecified chest injury of some sort striking the push bumper on the front of Off. Blackwell’s unit.”
Lt. Chris Rushing, an Internal Affairs investigator, drafted a note saying that the complaint never received more scrutiny from Internal Affairs because the matter was referred to Blackwell’s commanding officer.
“Based on the facts presented by you as well as by pertinent information gathered by our investigators, we have determined that your allegation(s) concerning this matter could best be resolved at the supervisory level,” the report reads.
A handwritten note jotted on the top right corner of the report indicates that the complaint was not sustained and that Blackwell received an oral reprimand. The outcome of the investigation: “Officer Blackwell did not violate any departmental policies or procedures in affecting this arrest.”
A former Baton Rouge police detective who had worked alongside Blackwell said that when he read the complaint nothing in it surprised him. The former detective, who asked that his name not be used for fear of professional repercussions, described it as a typical way that Internal Affairs would whitewash bad behavior – everything from the fact it was referred to his commanding officer for review to the gentle slap on the wrist Blackwell received for allegedly slamming an old man onto his car and putting him in handcuffs for a bicycle equipment summons.
It was especially unsurprising, he said, for an officer like Blackwell who was singled out by leadership in the department for protection and favor. Blackwell is the grandson of Officer J.D. Blackwell, who died in the line of duty in 1968 and is considered a fallen hero within the department.
Brandon Blackwell was appointed to a coveted assignment, the former detective said, and had a reputation for arrogance as soon as he got out of the academy.
“He had this attitude that he was better than everybody. You couldn’t teach him anything because he knew everything,” he said. “He was one of those people who could do whatever he wanted, and they were going to take care of him in that administration.”
One feature that was striking about the Internal Affairs report – and the report composed by the commanding officer and subsequently sent back to Internal Affairs – is that it does not depart from many of the facts as laid out by Butler himself. The report agrees that Blackwell grabbed Butler off his bike. The report finds that Blackwell sent him falling and crashing into the bumper. It also finds he cursed at Butler. It is in the interpretation of the actions where Butler and the official investigation diverge.
Blackwell did tell Butler to get off the bike, it just wasn’t a “loud verbal command.” Blackwell did put his hands on him, but it was to “assist him” off the bike. The report found Blackwell used force, but it was “of a very short duration” and it was just enough force to “overcome Butler’s resistance and secure him.” Yes, Butler’s chest did go crashing into the push bumper of Blackwell’s car, “but it was not done intentionally.”
And a review of the recording notes the dashcam captured Blackwell insulting Butler during the encounter, but to call it rude or derogatory – the standard laid out in the patrol guide for a violation of Command of Temper – would be unfair, according to the report.
“And while he did use a somewhat crude term (asshole) that might strictly be interpreted as ‘rude or derogatory language’ it is a word commonly used every day by many members of this agency as well as much of the general population,” the report reads. “It is even heard now on some broadcast morning radio shows without being bleeped, demonstrating it has become somewhat socially acceptable for common usage. More importantly, the manner in which Blackwell used it did not appear to be intended … to deride, offend, or insult, [Butler] as much as to question why he was resisting and to try and get him to calm down.”
Ultimately, Blackwell did not receive any discipline for his actions when he pulled Butler off his bike and onto his patrol car’s bumper. Internal Affairs agreed with Blackwell’s commanding officer who concluded the officer did not violate any department policies during the arrest.
His commanding officer in the 2nd District did give him an oral reprimand, however. The notes of that reprimand are detailed at the bottom of the report. He was told to speak more loudly and clearly when issuing verbal commands in the future. And he advised Blackwell to make sure his written reports match what is captured on video.
“I found his written report to be lacking some relevant information and not 100 percent consistent with the video of the incident,” the commanding officer wrote. “He was advised to work on making sure future reports are as thorough, detailed and accurate as possible.”
A high bottom and a low top
After several years went by with no word, Butler reckoned the complaint must have disappeared down a bureaucratic black hole. He moved on. A lot had happened to him since his encounter with Blackwell.
At the time of the incident, he lived in a ramshackle house where, he said, he could put his head through the ceiling to say “hello” if you were to come by and visit. Friends and neighbors affectionately called him “Shaka.” He continued making wood carvings, mostly of civil rights heroes. It was a skill he learned in his younger years while serving time in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, for killing his first wife.
Then he met JoAnn Matthews, the woman who became his second wife. She noticed his art one day and struck up a friendship. The friendship led to romance. She moved into the house and turned it into a home, they joked.
Before Matthews moved in, Butler didn’t have electricity or even a broom. She said she tied some old T-shirts to the end of a long branch and swept the floor then took some paper towels and did the same thing to mop it. Eventually, Matthews convinced Butler, whom she also calls Shaka, to move into a nicer home.
Despite all the flaws with the old house, she said she felt a tug of regret that they moved from the area. Shaka had always taken pride in trying to make their neighborhood look nice.
Matthews described Shaka as the type of man who would go over to the overgrown lot by the bus station and clean it up.
“I have seen that man take a cane knife and cut that grass like a lawn mower going over it,” she said. “He kept the neighborhood respectably clean. Respectably clean.”
Matthews said the old house was in a high-crime, drug-infested neighborhood.
“Whoever the police stopped over there, they always talked to them trashy,” she said. “They assumed everybody lived over there was drug addicts, you know, or drug dealers. And Shaka was not going to let them talk to him trashy. He was going to speak up for hisself. He was speaking up for hisself when they did what they did to him.”
When Butler filed his internal affairs complaint, he knew it was a long shot. The call from the reporter came out of the blue.
“When I got the phone call from the brother from New York, it was shocking to me. How did it get up there and what did he say? Wow. I am being noticed. That is punishment enough – put it in a newspaper,” he said.
Butler never had the chance to see his story get out into the world. He learned about the outcome of his case in July 2019. He died a year later, before his story – this story – made it into publication.
He collapsed one night and was rushed to the hospital. He never regained consciousness. His funeral was held at Roscoe Mortuary in Plaquemine, a small town across the river from Baton Rouge. The funeral was held only a half-mile from the St. Louis Sugar Plantation where as a 14-year-old he slashed his way through the cane fields as a worker.
“I was one of the baddest sugar cane cutters you’ve ever seen,” he’d said the afternoon he learned the outcome of his complaint. “Chopping that sugar cane up, I had my own knife on my side. I kept it razor-sharp.”
He would sing a song while he worked, slipping into a reverie as he remembered his childhood in the sugar cane fields.
“I got a high bottom and a low top – Yeah! I got a high bottom and a low top … hey, hey, hey, hey,” he sang.
The boss used to “brag on” him, he said. He would keep him home from school so he could work the fields. That’s how good he was.
“I was in the third, fourth grade going to a little school called Seymourville Elementary,” he said. “It might have been cutting me short of my education, but all of them respected me.”
He worked the fields with “two aunties,” he said. He was so proficient at fieldwork that he would do some of his aunts’ share so they wouldn’t have to work so hard.
Butler’s funeral was lightly attended. The service was about 30 minutes long followed by a few prayers led by JoAnn’s brother. The plantation is a private home now, but the sugar crops are still growing. Machines, not men, do the hard work of harvesting them now.
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.
Join Verite’s Mailing List | Get the news that matters to you
Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:
Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.