BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's Black state lawmakers said Tuesday they are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the patterns and practices of the State Police as the law enforcement agency's treatment of African Americans comes under scrutiny.
The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus is calling on the DOJ to determine if troopers have systematically violated the constitutional rights of Black people. The lawmakers sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland that outlines what it calls “gross misconduct” and a “pattern of cruel and excessive brutality” in the fatal arrest of Ronald Greene and the use of force against Aaron Bowman. The American Civil Liberties Union also has asked the department's civil rights division to review the entire agency's tactics.
“We're asking for a full-scale, top-to-bottom patterns and practices investigation,” Rep. Ted James, the Baton Rouge Democrat who chairs the caucus, said Tuesday as he was surrounded by members of the group at the Louisiana Capitol.
Federal officials already are conducting a civil rights investigation into troopers' treatment of Greene, a Black man who was punched and dragged before his death in May 2019. The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about calls for a wider investigation of the law enforcement agency.
Troopers initially told Greene’s relatives he died in a crash following a chase on a rural road near Monroe. Later, State Police issued a short statement saying Greene had struggled with troopers during his arrest and died on the way to a hospital.
What really happened during the man's last moments alive was revealed only after The Associated Press obtained body-camera video that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration subsequently released two years later. No troopers have been charged.
The Black lawmakers' letter to the DOJ, provided by James, also references the pummeling of Bowman by troopers from the same northeast-based unit. Bowman was struck 18 times with a flashlight, leaving him with three broken ribs, a broken jaw, a broken wrist and a gash to his head.
The State Police set up a secret panel in response to Greene’s death, Bowman's beating and two other violent stops of Black men to investigate whether white troopers in the northeastern part of the state have systematically targeted Black motorists for abuse. But the lawmakers want a broader review than this internal investigation of the northeast-based Troop F.
“The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus believes that an in-depth investigation will reveal common practices and patterns of the department that will enlighten everyone to much more corruption that is taking place in Louisiana,” said the letter signed by the 36 Black House and Senate members.
The request to the DOJ marks a shift in the Legislative Black Caucus' approach.
Lawmakers in the caucus — who are important allies for the Democratic governor in the Legislature — had applauded Edwards' appointment of a Black man, Col. Lamar Davis, to lead the State Police and had stopped short of criticizing the governor's decision-making involving the agency.
Tuesday's news conference indicates the legislators don't think the Edwards administration has gone far enough.
“We want (Davis) to continue to focus on improving that agency. We don't believe that he can continue to focus and continue to dig as deep as he's going to be required to dig to uncover up the issues at his department,” James said.
In a statement, Edwards' spokesperson Christina Stephens sought to downplay divisions with Black lawmakers, saying the governor “enjoys a strong working relationship” with the caucus and was notified the lawmakers would be sending the letter to the Justice Department.
However, she also suggested a full-scale federal review was unnecessary, saying the governor believes Davis can make the changes needed to “transform” the State Police.
She said if law enforcement officers violate their oath to protect people regardless of their race, "they should be held responsible and face the appropriate consequences for their action or inaction. For our officers, we believe this important work can be accomplished with strong leadership at the Louisiana State Police.”
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Melinda Deslatte, The Associated Press