Part 2 of 5
The three-day statewide manhunt was over, and the young man accused of shooting at a Baton Rouge police officer after fleeing a traffic stop was being paraded before news cameras.
Raheem Howard, 21, his wrists cuffed behind him and his ankles shackled, shuffled along between two BRPD officers as they made their way in the traditional “perp walk” to a patrol car.
But as the blinding lights came on and camera shutters clicked, instead of trying to hide his face or ignore the reporters’ shouted questions, Howard faced the crowd and made a heartfelt plea. He knew this might be his last chance.
“They said I had a gun, I didn’t have nothing in my hand,” he said. “They got the dashcam and body camera. I got out and ran, I didn’t have nothing. I didn’t have no gun at all.”
“So you were there,” a reporter asked. Howard acknowledged that he was there and it was his car, but continued to plead that he never had a gun.
“I asked to take a lie detector test and everything, DNA, everything. I didn’t have no gun,” he said. “They had beaucoup people out there, they got witnesses. The people who was in my car, I gave them names. I didn’t have no gun. I’m innocent. I’m only 21 years old.
“They got the body cameras, the dash camera. I didn’t do nothing but run. I didn’t do nothing but run. That’s all I did.”
Finally he went quiet and shook his head. A look of frustration, then defeat, crossed his face. He disappeared into the back of the waiting police car.
Only one shot fired
Howard turned himself in on Aug. 10, 2018 for allegedly shooting at Officer Yuseff Hamadeh, a member of the BRPD’s now-disbanded Street Crimes Unit, during a traffic stop. He was charged with attempted first-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon and faced at least 50 years in prison if convicted.
A few nights earlier, on the evening of Aug. 7, Howard was driving friends back from a job interview at a local restaurant, The Chimes, when he saw the police lights behind him. He pulled over, jumped out of his car and ran, leaving his passengers behind.
In a federal lawsuit he later filed, Raheem Howard said he ran because he was scared for his life. In a separate deposition, Howard said he ran because he had a bench warrant for his arrest.
In either case, the story that aired on televisions across the city that night and made the rounds on social media was that while he fled, Howard pulled a gun and fired at Hamadeh who was chasing him.
Hamadeh, fearing that his life was in danger, according to the reports, pulled out his department-issued gun and returned fire. But he missed and Howard managed to escape.
The manhunt was on.
The incident occurred on a Tuesday evening. Howard turned himself in that Friday. But in the interim, questions about the incident had started to emerge. And Howard’s pleas of innocence caught on video only raised more.
Neighborhood residents came forward saying they had heard only one shot that day.
BRPD Chief Murphy Paul’s administration opened an Internal Affairs investigation into the shooting. They found that Hamadeh’s body camera and front dash camera had been off, a violation of policy.
His rear dash camera had been on but turned downward so it didn’t record any video, but it did capture audio. And that audio corroborated the residents’ accounts: only one gun shot was fired that day. Ballistics confirmed that it came from Hamadeh’s gun.
Hamadeh was fired from the department after the investigation, not for the shooting but for failing to tell his supervisor that his car crashed into Howard’s during the stop. The district attorney declined to prosecute Howard.
Hamadeh immediately appealed his termination with the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board and won. The board found that the department had violated Hamadeh’s rights under a section of state law commonly referred to as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
As part of the Internal Affairs investigation, Hamadeh had undergone a polygraph test conducted by Louisiana State Police on behalf of the BRPD. But Hamadeh’s attorneys argued that the test hadn’t been recorded as required by the law and that they hadn’t been allowed in the room while it took place.
As with the firing of Blane Salamoni after the Alton Sterling shooting, Paul would lose another high-profile skirmish in his campaign to discipline his officers and change the culture at the BRPD.
The department appealed the decision to reinstate Hamadeh. But instead of fighting it out in court, the two sides announced a settlement a few months later that allowed Hamadeh to resign from the department. Six months later, Salamoni would strike the same deal. Both would be free to continue working in law enforcement elsewhere.
Uncovered records tell a different story
But records acquired by Verite News and never seen before by the public show that the facts behind the civil service board’s decision were more complicated and the internal affairs file they were operating off of was incomplete.
The records from an Internal Affairs investigation conducted in the wake of Hamadeh’s reinstatement show that the polygraph of the officer was in fact recorded and that Hamadeh had signed a release with State Police before being questioned by the polygrapher.
The documents show that Hamadeh made no request for his attorney to be present, that he could have declined the exam, and that the State Police’s polygraphist said that all of its polygraph tests are done one-on-one. His attorney was in the building but not allowed into the room itself.
Sgt. John Dauthier, then Internal Affairs supervisor and the lead investigator into Hamadeh’s case, was investigated by his own department for how he handled the matter. Dauthier would later become an outspoken leader of the group opposed to Paul.
Paul’s investigation into one of his own investigators within Internal Affairs marked two central developments in the burgeoning civil war within the department. First, it pitted Paul’s push for cultural change against the old guard’s way of doing things, especially the belief that when it comes to discipline the police protect their own.
Second, it gave an early indication of just how unyielding the resistance within the department would become.
Eugene Collins, who was president of the NAACP in Baton Rouge during most of Paul’s tenure, said he thinks the new chief did not realize how deeply entrenched the corruption was within his department until the Hamadeh case. He described it as a “wake-up call.”
Paul finally realized, Collins said, how much resistance he was going to encounter in his mission to make his department more accountable.
Hamadeh said in an interview this week that he disagreed with Paul’s decision to fire him but declined to comment on the Internal Affairs investigations.
“The only thing I do know is that the internal investigation was different than all my other ones. It was very aggressive from the beginning,” he said.
Hamadeh said he only ever interacted with Paul during the administrative investigation into his case and even supported some of his decisions early in his tenure.
“I didn’t have a problem with him up until that point,” Hamadeh said. “I didn’t disagree with everything he was doing in the beginning either.”
But, he felt as though his case was a casualty in a bigger fight. It was caught in the political crossfire.
“None of us know if he’s genuine or if it’s politics,” he said about Paul and his decisions.
An X-ray of a cover-up
The memories of her son’s ordeal came flooding back to Tenesia Howard as she read the final 201-page Internal Affairs report on the investigation. She and Raheem had waited anxiously for weeks for the truth to come out and for the district attorney to decline to prosecute him.
Once he was in the clear, they had to wait while he served time for an unrelated matter. In the end Raheem Howard wasn’t released from the parish prison until Oct. 2, nearly two months after his encounter with Hamadeh.
Over the years there had been court dates for the ongoing civil case her son filed in federal court against the department. In 2020, there was even a grand jury that considered and declined to impose felony charges against Hamadeh for the shooting.
The grand jury also declined to charge Hamadeh in the 2017 fatal shooting of Jordan Frazier, who, like Howard, ran after Hamadeh pulled him over for a traffic stop.
Police said Frazier had turned and pointed a gun at Hamadeh, who then shot him. The coroner later determined that Frazier had been shot in the back.
Police said they had recovered a gun, but a witness who was in the car with Frazier said he never had one. The body camera program was not fully implemented in the department so Hamadeh did not have one on that night.
Tenesia Howard had seen many records about her son’s case but the document she was reading now was staggering.
“Here you get to see how it actually works,” she said.
The report showed how the initial investigation had allowed the officer who falsely accused Raheem Howard of shooting at him – an accusation that could have landed her son in prison for the rest of his life – to escape punishment.
She was amazed by the brazenness of what she called a cover-up.
“If I tried to explain it to someone else they would think I was making it all up. You just can’t believe that someone could be that comfortable doing this,” she said.
Raheem Howard’s attorney, Ron Haley, said the final IA report confirmed his initial suspicions.
“We always suspected there was a poison pill put into Hamadeh’s disciplinary hearing,” he said after reading the Internal Affairs report. “We just never knew where it came from and now we do.”
Given the police department’s reputation, Haley said he originally, and wrongfully, thought Paul had rigged the outcome.
“The poison pill was put in the case by the internal investigator himself,” he said.
But Dauthier, who retired from the department about a year and a half ago, said the idea that he engineered the outcome of Hamadeh’s case is laughable. The timeline just doesn’t work, he said. He would have had to have known about the defense months in advance to be able to manipulate the evidence and that wasn’t the case.
A ‘homicide-level investigation’
If anything, Dauthier said, the findings of his initial investigation were the reason why Hamadeh was fired. He said that a couple of weeks into the investigation, then-Sgt. Myron Daniels asked him to dig further.
“I want you to do a homicide-level investigation. I want you to dig way into this thing on the policy side,” he recalled Daniels saying.
And that’s what he did, he said.
“I dove into that thing like never before,” he said.
“I brought a drone out. I did shell casing ejection pattern tests. I did a live fire acoustic thing at the scene,” he said. “And keep in mind back then I only had 45 days to complete an investigation, type it up and then turn it in.”
Ultimately, he said, he is the one who found the violation that allowed for Hamadeh’s termination: Hamadeh had not been truthful by failing to tell his supervisor that his car had bumped into Howard’s car with minimal damage.
But Dauthier said that, despite the evidence, Paul insisted on a polygraph. Dauthier said that he and Daniels – not typically allies – both protested the idea. A polygraph would complicate the case and the department didn’t have experience with them, he said they argued. But Paul insisted.
Ultimately, issues regarding the polygraph would lead to Hamadeh’s reinstatement and the investigation into how the original inquiry was handled. That was the report Tenesia Howard held in her hand. Flipping through the document she compared it to peering into an X-ray image of a cover-up.
She and her son feel betrayed by the system.
“They did what they were trying to accomplish,” she said. “They gave him his job back. They gave him a chance to resign.”
Instead of holding Hamadeh to account, she said, investigators commiserated with him.
“I was very disappointed in the Internal Affairs Division,” she said. “If it was me who did that they would’ve put handcuffs on me!”
The seeds for the strategy behind the Hamadeh reversal are found in an earlier court ruling in Miller vs. Gonzales.
The case involved a police officer in Ascension Parish accused of a domestic incident involving his wife and her father. He was disciplined for violating 10 of the department’s policies and fired.
The officer appealed the case to the 23rd Judicial Court and won. The court found that the discipline violated two key pieces of what is known as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights:
a) All interrogations were not recorded in full.
b) The law enforcement officer was not allowed assistance of counsel during an interrogation.
In Hamadeh’s case, the civil service board narrowly ruled, 3-2, in Hamadeh’s favor on the second point.
But the investigation into the investigation found that Hamadeh’s attorney, Tommy Dewey, had at some point told Dauthier that he was going to use the Miller vs. Gonzales precedent in his defense of Hamadeh.
Dewey did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Later, according to the documents, Dauthier approached Daniels with a copy of Miller vs. Gonzales and said that they hadn’t recorded the polygraph and that he thought Hamadeh had a good case. He went on to sign an affidavit for Hamadeh’s attorney, saying that the file Dewey received when he requested the investigation only included a one-page report of the polygraph. Dewey used that affidavit to help make his successful case in front of the board.
But according to the investigation, Hamadeh signed a waiver acknowledging that he was within his rights to stop the polygraph for any reason, including the lack of counsel. His attorney, who was there that day, could have brought the proceedings to a halt since the polygraphist said that his presence could skew the results. But neither objected to the polygraph.
Tenesia Howard said she can only draw one conclusion from how Hamadeh’s disciplinary case was handled: Internal Affairs and Hamadeh’s attorney engineered the desired outcome from the get-go. She doesn’t think there are any coincidences. She believes they looked at the standard for the Miller vs. Gonzales decision and then made sure they got that outcome, she said.
“He had to make it fit, it’s like a puzzle piece,” she said. “You have the piece that fits in there. But it’s them taking the wrong piece and making it fit.”
Tenesia Howard said she thought it strange that a veteran Internal Affairs investigator with that much experience wouldn’t do something as simple as pick up the phone and call the State Police polygraphist and ask if there was a recording.
Two State Police law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation said it is standard practice to gather all the evidence, including video and audio of polygraph exams.
Notes from the Internal Affairs investigation also put the onus on Dauthier for the missing documents: “Upon completion of Sgt. Dauthier’s investigation of the aforementioned case, it was determined that these two significant items were not secured by Sgt. Dauthier and placed into the case file.”
Dauthier told investigators that he was “out of town” for the polygraph and that he didn’t know there was a recording nor that Hamadeh had signed a release waiver.
But Tenesia Howard doesn’t believe that.
“You claimed that you don’t know it was recorded, but everyone knows it was recorded,” Tenesia Howard said. “Hamadeh signed a consent form. He wanted to take it.”
Dauthier was investigated for four possible violations during the Hamadeh affair: shirking duties, conduct unbecoming of an officer, falsifying of documents and truthfulness. Although it was determined that Dauthier had not secured all the needed documents for the file, the complaints against him were all found to be not-sustained, a ruling that, according to department policy, means there is insufficient evidence to either prove or disprove the allegations.
The department did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Dauthier said the reason he didn’t ask for the waiver and the recording is because he didn’t know they existed. And, he was out of town on the day the test took place.
“I had zero experience with polygraphs,” he said. “So when I asked him for the report, in my brain I was asking him for the report.”
If he’d known there was a recording, he said, he would have asked for it. He also said that when Hamadeh’s lawyer asked for the affidavit, he ran it by the legal department for its blessing. He said they told him to go ahead because it would save them from a possible deposition later on.
‘How many other people have they done this to?’
One thing that baffles Tenesia Howard is why Paul didn’t run to the microphones and expose the cover-up when he found out.
“It’s too many lies, too many cover-ups,” she said. “It should’ve been exposed. Why sweep it under the rug?”
But she did appreciate that Paul was so aggressive in trying to get to the bottom of what happened in the Hamadeh case when he realized something was wrong.
According to the investigation, the existence of the recording and waiver was confirmed during a meeting between the BRPD and State Police to discuss how the investigation was handled. The meeting took place about two weeks after Hamadeh’s termination was overturned. It was the revelation during this postmortem that initiated the internal investigation into Dauthier.
“I give Paul credit,” Tenesia Howard said. “I can’t take that away from him. He could’ve taken their word. And he didn’t. He took the initiative and he exposed it.”
But, she added, the chicanery exposed the limits to his power over his own department when confronted with a culture resistant to change.
“So basically you are the chief of police, but only up to a certain extent,” she said. “When it comes to the good old boys there, they’re going to have their way no matter what.”
A sense of dread started to creep over Tenesia as she read deeper into the details of the investigation. She shuddered at an alternate version of history, one where none of this came to light. She had a vision of her son, a 70-year-old man in a cell for a crime he didn’t commit.
A disturbing question came into her mind: “How many other people have they done this to?”
Next: “We are the f***ing police.”
This series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
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