We can’t reform police departments if civil service boards tolerate abuse

Abusive police have no place on such boards

July 3, 2020 7:20 am

A scene in Minnesota after George Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police and residents erupted in anger. Floyd’s death sparked a wave of protests across the country and renewed calls for police reform. (Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer)

Fr. Richard R. Andrus Jr., SVD

The fact that Officer Robert Moruzzi continues to serve on the Baton Rouge Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board is a moral disgrace.

In Louisiana, civil service boards hear appeals from police officers who have been disciplined for professional violations, including for using excessive force. I started paying attention to the Baton Rouge board four years ago when Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a Baton Rouge police officer down the street from the church where I pastor.

These boards are appointed by local universities, city governments and the police and fire employees. For six years the Baton Rouge Union of Police’s choice for this disciplinary review board has been Officer Moruzzi, whose own disciplinary record reflects a shocking pattern of abuse. 

According to a Baton Rouge police report, in 2009, Officer Moruzzi, off-duty and intoxicated, tore up an election sign in front of a downtown restaurant. When the manager intervened Moruzzi punched him five times in the face, drew his gun and threatened to kill him. Moruzzi was issued a misdemeanor summons for attempted theft, assault, battery and disturbing the peace. He was fired from the police force but was later reinstated.

In 2013, Officer Moruzzi was the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by a former LSU student whose friends couldn’t wake him and asked for a medical welfare call. According to the former student’s lawsuit, when he woke up and told Officer Moruzzi he didn’t want to be taken to the hospital, the officer shocked him twice with his stun gun to force him onto a stretcher. The former student’s attorney said his client refused treatment at the hospital and was immediately allowed to go home.

In 2014, Moruzzi was the subject of another federal lawsuit for excessive force. While serving a narcotics warrant, Officer Moruzzi grabbed Brett Percle, a 24-year-old bystander who was not the subject of the warrant, forced his face to the concrete and stomped on the back of Percle’s head, knocking out his teeth. Percle sued, and a jury found  that Officer Moruzzi had committed assault and battery, forcing the city to pay a $75,000 settlement for his actions.

Shortly after he bashed in Percle’s teeth, the police union gave Moruzzi its “Medal for Merit” and selected him to be its representative on the civil service board. Now he’s the board’s chair.

It would be wrong to characterize this as a mistake on the part of the police union. This is coldly calculating stuff.

The police union is saying to fellow officers: No matter what you do, we have your back. No matter how egregious your abuse of force, no matter how many times you do it, we will insulate you from accountability. Until now, that strategy has worked.

In 2019, the civil service board heard an appeal from Officer Yuseff Hamadeh, who had been fired by a reform-minded chief of police after Hamadeh shot at a Black man, Raheem Howard, following a routine traffic stop. An internal investigation determined that there was no evidence to support Officer Hamadeh’s claim that Howard shot at him first.  As he was being arrested, Howard told officers and a television station that body cam footage would show that he never had a gun, but Hamadeh, in violation of the rules, had his camera off.

There were multiple witnesses, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said, and the only one who said there was more than a single shot fired was Officer Hamadeh. All that suggests that Hamadeh lied when he said Howard shot at him and that he was trying to frame the man he had just shot at.

A year earlier, that same Officer Hamadeh had fatally shot young Black motorist, Jordan Frazier, two times in the back and one time in his leg. The police union gave Hamadeh its Medal for Valor after that incident.

The civil service board overturned Hamadeh’s firing, with Officer Moruzzi casting the deciding vote.

At the center of the national uproar over police brutality is the question of apples and orchards. If police brutality were just a problem of “a few bad apples,” then reform would be straightforward. Get rid of those guys. Hire better people. Train officers better. Do implicit bias training. Problem solved.

Officer Moruzzi’s elevation to civil service board chair prompts us to look at the orchard, that is, look at all the ways police departments have fostered a culture of brutality, look at all the ways systems of accountability have been distorted into tools that insulate abusive officers from consequences.

Police unions play a central role in maintaining the orchard and keeping our police accountability systems broken. But they are far from the only ones.

Think of all the people in a position to have said something about Officer Moruzzi before now. The Metro Council cut a check for Moruzzi’s abuse, but said nothing about his appointment to the board. Local universities appoint two members to the board. The State Examiner oversees board appointments. The press is supposed to be a watchdog.  Nobody objected.

I didn’t either.  I saw how Moruzzi operated, and I could have done a newspaper archive search on him before now.

But the point isn’t to cast blame or look back. The point is for all of us to say now, with a united voice: Moruzzi must resign. We must reform our Civil Service law to remove the features that insulate officers from accountability. We must not rest or flinch until we fix this broken system.

Father Richard “Rick” Andrus, SVD is the pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, La. He Is a member of the Society of the Divine Word, a world-wide missionary order. Currently, he also serves on the Together Baton Rouge Executive Committee.

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