The brawl broke out during the summer of 2019 on a hunting trip in East Texas among a mix of current and former members of the Baton Rouge Police Department.
The trip was a tradition that stretched back generations. It was common in the “good ol’ days” for decisions about promotions and appointments to be hashed out by some of the leadership while shooting quail or reeling in redfish.
But that outdoorsy backroom dealing had come to an end when a new chief took over more than a year earlier with a raft of policy changes that weren’t sitting well with everybody in the department.
One night, according to three law enforcement officials familiar with the incident, the dinner conversation turned toward the initiatives and mandates the new chief, Murphy Paul, had begun implementing: audits of body cameras, cleaning up Internal Affairs and meting out discipline for behavior like excessive use of force that records show had often been ignored or even rewarded.
One of the captains who worked under Paul came to his defense. He said that Paul was an honorable guy who wanted to do the right thing. The captain said the new chief was trying to do his best to restore order in the department and make it fair for the people who work there. Not just that, he added, but fair for the people that they police.
That assessment infuriated some in the anti-Paul camp.
“When did you start drinking the Kool-Aid?” one man shouted, rising to his feet. “I thought you were with us?”
Then he asked the question that sent fists flying: “Since when did you become a n***er lover?”
Some of the other men intervened and broke up the confrontation before it went much further but tensions remained.
The two factions scheduled separate hunting trips after that.
This fight – ‘I look at it as America’
By the summer of 2021 the skirmishes in the BRPD had started to pile up. By August, Paul faced a run of marathon civil service board battles, some of which lasted into the early morning.
In April of that year, one of Paul’s most vocal opponents, Sgt. John Dauthier, asked the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board to investigate Paul not just for violating department policy, but for breaking criminal law. Paul said the unusual move was part of a retaliation for opening Internal Affairs investigations into Dauthier for two separate incidents.
During an interview in his office in August of 2021, Paul dismissed the move by Dauthier, a 20-year veteran of the BRPD, as more of the same from a minority within the department determined to thwart his efforts. Dauthier eventually withdrew his complaint.
“I am aware of those things,” Paul said, referring to the campaign to oppose his changes. “But I don’t pay attention to it. I focus on the positive things, I don’t give energy to toxicity.”
Internal Affairs investigations are governed by policy, not personality, he said.
With Paul retiring on Nov. 3, the question now is what will happen to the changes he made in the department over often fierce opposition from the police unions, some of his predecessors and officers within his own department. And what does it say about reform efforts in other cities across the country?
During the interview in his office Paul grew visibly impatient talking about the battles he has encountered. He wanted to talk about training – a topic that draws out the TED Talk version of the chief.
He used two federal initiatives to help train his trainers, and brought in a consultant from California to talk about procedural justice training. He thinks the training is the key to the success he has had with his officers, including a 40% decrease in use-of-force complaints in the past five years, according to department data released in April.
“It’s not really what I’m doing, it’s what they’re doing,” he said of his officers on the streets. “And I think for us, it’s giving them the tools and part of the tools is training.”
It is fortunate he made the procedural justice training mandatory when he did, he said. It allowed the “healing process” within his department to start before the 2020 killing of George Floyd inflamed more divisions.
The training, which was created by the Department of Justice, gives a historical perspective on policing in Black communities.
“And it’s a hot, direct conversation,” said Paul, who is the second Black police chief in Baton Rouge history. “A very uncomfortable conversation for some, but we believe it was needed.”
His body-camera policy – which exceeds Justice Department guidelines – was a game changer, Paul said, allowing supervisors to audit and track how well officers are following the training.
“We do understand that sometimes there’s some officers who make mistakes, and they have to be held accountable,” he said. “But most of those mistakes and that accountability doesn’t mean an officer has to lose his job. We do that through training. We do that through coaching. We do that through mentoring. We do it through suspensions, we also do it through demotions.”
He acknowledged that approach is what landed him in his current turmoil.
“There will always be resistance when it comes to change. That’s not unique to law enforcement,” he said. “But when we talk about change in law enforcement, why does it take on this negative meaning or this negative connotation? The only thing reform means is to change and make better what is unsatisfactory. That’s not my definition, you can go look it up.”
As for the battles within the department, he was philosophic.
“This fight. You know, I kinda, like, don’t look at it as a fight. Right,” he said. “I look at it as America.”
Ruffled feathers and stepped-on toes
As Paul prepares for his retirement next month, he has already outlasted by more than three years the last chief who came into BRPD with a reform agenda.
DeWayne White, like Paul, was a veteran of the State Police. When he became chief in 2011 he wanted to win back the trust of the community, particularly the Black community, which makes up about 53 percent of the city’s population. White went to war with members within the department and the union.
He was fired by the mayor-president at the time, Kip Holden, in early 2013, less than two years into his tenure.
Union President Chris Stewart, who would later leave the BRPD after being investigated for threatening to burn down his ex-girlfriend’s house, celebrated when White was fired by a mayor who was deeply supportive of the police union. He said that White had hurt department morale and created a “hostile environment.”
Much of the same criticism directed at White was directed at Paul. Paul has heard people talk about the eerie parallels between him and White.
After he announced his retirement in July, people close to Paul said that he pointed to White’s departure letter from a decade before as a document that captured everything he was going through himself. Aside from the fractured relationship between White and Holden, Paul sees the clashes and frustrations from his tenure echoed in White’s letter.
“I became Chief with the very clear mission of ending corruption, cronyism, crime and making Baton Rouge a safer and better city. It is clear to me that in my attempts to accomplish these goals I have ruffled feathers and stepped on toes.
“I frankly did not realize how much my attempts to make the department more accountable and the community a better place to live angered some very powerful persons.”
White stayed quiet for a decade after his heated public firing. It was a contentious time, he said, and afterward, he promised his family he would stay out of the news. But he decided it was time to speak out after watching what Paul has endured these past few years. He doesn’t want future chiefs to go through what he and Paul have gone through, he said.
He first realized that there was a problem in the department when he would go to community meetings in predominantly Black neighborhoods of the city, White said, and ask if anyone in the room trusted the police department. No one would raise their hands.
“And then I saw the numbers of use-of-force complaints in relationship to the number of officers in uniform patrol,” he said. “And it was, let’s say, soberingly high.”
So he set out to change it and part of that change was through discipline, he said.
But immediately he faced resistance. And what it came down to was a power struggle, he said. The union and its supporters, both inside and outside the department, wanted things done their way.
“They seem to be more interested in gathering power and retaining power,” White said. “Every decision I’ve made, whether it was a transfer or an administrative decision, was challenged.”
The police union did not respond requests for comment.
It didn’t surprise him that his successor, Carl Dabadie, didn’t have the same issues, he said.
White remembered an incident at State Police where both he and Dabadie were working after their tenures at the BRPD.
He was at a training session run by Dabadie when the shooting of Alton Sterling by Blane Salamoni came up. He heard Dabadie tell troopers that Sterling was nothing but a piece of –– and here White had to spell out the word –– S-H-I-T. White said he held his tongue at the time, but has never forgotten the impression it made on him.
“I’m just thinking, what a reprehensible thing to say in front of all these people,” he said.
Dabadie did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this series. Salamoni declined to comment as well.
White admitted that he had hired Salamoni, the officer who killed Sterling. But it was Dabadie’s fault that Salamoni was still patrolling the streets years after what Paul would later describe as a pattern of “unprofessional behavior, police violence, marginalization, polarization and implicit bias by a man who should have never ever wore this uniform.”
“If you had done your job as chief, even though I hired the fool, it should have never been confirmed,” White said. “You should have gotten rid of him. Or at least put him at the booking desk.”
It goes back to what he said was the racism and complaints of racial profiling that he confronted when he became chief.
“Everybody they stop with that color skin they believe is probably a criminal,” White said. “And they treat him as such.”
That was the landscape that Paul stepped into in early 2018.
‘He has cleaned up internal affairs’
It was in the middle of Paul’s tenure that it dawned on Baton Rouge Councilwoman Chauna Banks that she was no longer an outsider.
“Internal Affairs was never, ever, ever something that was within reach of the community,” she said. The division responsible for investigating allegations of police misconduct was not trusted and people did not feel comfortable approaching it with complaints.
She reached for the phone to call Karen Ennis, one of her best friends and a constituent in Scotlandville, a historically Black neighborhood in north Baton Rouge. In 2014, she said, Ennis’ adult daughter was thrown to the ground by a BRPD officer in what should have been a non-violent encounter.
“So how did all that end ‘cause I can’t remember nothing about it?” Banks asked.
“I sent in something to Internal Affairs,” Ennis said. “But nothing.”
“They never responded or anything?” Banks asked.
“Nope,” Ennis replied.
Banks said she had known about the incident when it happened. She was already an elected official, but she didn’t make a phone call to Dabadie, the police chief at the time.
“I’m just thinking about this,” she said. “I never said anything. And I knew Chief Dabadie, you know, had access to him.” But approaching him on the issue “just wasn’t something that was done or said.”
That would not happen now, Banks said nearly two years later during an interview this past August. One of Paul’s legacies was to help Black leaders feel empowered in their own government. She said she has no problem calling Paul about similar situations.
“He has cleaned up Internal Affairs. All the areas where there were problems,” she said. “He had done the work for his time and it was time to turn the page. He had trained up enough of the internal staff.”
Even with all of the recent controversy around abuse at a facility that has been referred to in recent lawsuits as the “BRAVE Cave,” Banks still stands by Paul and his reforms.
She said whether the changes stick depends on who wins the mayoral election next year, in which incumbent Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome is seeking a third term. Broome did not respond to requests for comment for this series.
‘Too many unknowns’
In early August, three months before his scheduled retirement, Paul was hosting his Chief’s Advisory Council, a panel made up of about 30 different community groups. Started in 2019, it was another one of Paul’s initiatives aimed at improving the relationship between the community and the cops. They meet a few times a year in the chief’s conference room.
A mix of community members and deputy chiefs sat around a large table, staring at a screen where dozens more community members sat in little Zoom meeting boxes.
The topic of the day, as it often was with Paul, was technology. He wanted to introduce a program for drones he hoped would make the city safer and limit the dangers to his officers. In March, two of his officers died in a helicopter crash during a car chase. That’s an instance where the drones could be deployed instead, he told the council.
They could also be used to identify a suspect fleeing on foot. Instead of entering a situation where they have imperfect knowledge – is the suspect armed, what are the rules of engagement? – the drone takes care of that.
There was a sense of inevitability about the technology in the physical and virtual room, but there was also a sense of unease. People on the council seemed to trust the drone program – so long as it was under Paul’s watch. They were worried that the program would invite abuse, allowing the police department to use the technology to surveil people in selected areas without proper restraint or supervision.
Tonja Myles, an advisory council member and mental health activist, summed up what many in the city have whispered behind closed doors since Paul’s pending retirement was announced.
“I’m just being honest, so we know you are going to do right by us,” she said. “But is there going to be things in place that whoever the next chief is, that the policies that are good –– for not just the officers but the community –– are going to be continued? Are they going to be on lock?”
Paul, who had become used to calming people’s nerves – particularly in the Black community – tried to reassure her.
“That’s the thing about policies, Tonja,” he said. “I don’t think that any chief that will come behind me would change that to the point that we’re using something in an unconstitutional way.”
The final item on the agenda that day was footage of a fatal police shooting from July 21. Paul wanted to let the members of the council see the body camera footage before he released it to the public later in the week.
The video shows the officer arriving at an apartment complex at 9:30 p.m. in the midst of pandemonium. Someone just off-camera is screaming incoherently. The officer jumps from his car and shouts at a man to drop his gun. Dantonior Stalling, 23, refuses. He has just shot his nephew, who will later die in the hospital, in a domestic dispute over his 3-year old son.
Stalling advances with the gun. Instead of shooting, the officer retreats to a corner of the building for safety. Stalling advances again. The officer, breathing heavily, retreats to safety again, screaming at Stalling to drop the gun.
Then, amid the chaotic din, you can make out what the suspect is screaming: “Kill me.”
Another officer arrives for backup, he too shouts at Stalling to drop the gun. Eventually, an officer shoots. Stalling is dead by the time he arrives at the hospital.
Paul wanted the council to see the footage so he could field their questions before its release. He also wanted them to see what his officers face in the field and how they respond to training.
The consensus in the room was that in this case the officers had handled the tragic situation well. Some people on the council mentioned the need for other services to intervene before it gets to the desperate moment when a man is screaming at police to kill him. Paul acknowledged that there is a need for more social services.
The Stalling shooting could not be any more different than the shooting that led to Paul’s hiring as BRPD chief: Blane Salamoni’s shooting of Alton Sterling.
That fact was not lost on Eugene Collins, the former president of the NAACP and an advisory council member in attendance at the meeting that day. Like Paul, his career was closely tied to the Sterling shooting. He began devoting his efforts to reforming police in its wake.
Collins said he thought the restraint shown by the officers in the recent Stalling shooting is admirable. He didn’t think he would have withheld firing that long in the same situation.
Collins, once one of the most vocal critics of the BRPD, said Paul has won him over. He’s remained his supporter throughout the recent controversy and attended a rally outside of police headquarters in support of the chief.
For Paul to accomplish what he did anywhere would be impressive, but to pull it off in a small, southern conservative city like Baton Rouge was particularly remarkable, he said in an interview at a local NAACP office a few days after the meeting.
These are changes that offer a roadmap for other cities in the state and the country, Collins said.
“It takes excuses away from cities that are supposed to have more structure,” he said.
The first step is to look for where the city really created a change, he added.
“Internal Affairs,” he said. “That’s one of the things that you can document with Chief Paul.”
Collins is an alternate on the Police Chief Review Committee, which is tasked with helping determine the next chief. The committee took up Collins’ recommendation to look at the internal affairs histories of all the candidates. The members will be reviewing them at future meetings.
Collins said his answer to how he feels about Paul’s retirement can be reduced to one word: Fearful.
“It’s too many unknowns to make you feel comfortable. So there’s some fear there,” he said. “But I will say that the change that was created in this timeframe was historic. I think people are going to write about it. I think people are going to talk about what happened here in Baton Rouge across this country for a very long time.”
‘More blue than black’
Sandra Sterling, Alton Sterling’s aunt, has complicated feelings about Paul. She has watched from a distance as he fought public battles over the future of the police department that killed her nephew, someone she raised as a son. When asked if she was proud of Paul’s efforts she paused before she answered.
“Yes and no,” she said. “Chief Murphy Paul, his heart is more blue than Black,” suggesting he is more of the police than of the Black community.
She said she showed up at a rally to support him in the wake of the “BRAVE Cave” revelations but he was surrounded by too many people for her to get close.
“I went out there because I wanted him to see me. I wanted him to see my face,” she said.
Sterling was devastated the day Alton was killed. Since his death she’s suffered from three strokes and has had to learn to walk and speak again.
“My life changed that day,” she said.
That was a part of the complicated mix of reasons she went to Paul’s rally – to offer a reminder. He had fired the officer who had killed her nephew but had been forced into an agreement to hire him back so that he could resign.
“We still don’t have justice for Alton,” she said. “I support you – but I’m not OK.”
She believes that Paul went into the job with good intentions but bit off more than he could chew. And ultimately, he is a cop down to his core.
“He’s a police officer to his heart,” she said. “He’s more about that badge than his color.”
As the city begins the search for a new chief Sterling said she wishes Paul all the best. But she had a final message for him and perhaps whoever might follow him into the job.
“Just remember us, that’s all,” she said almost in a whisper. “Remember us.”
This series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
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