Who should investigate La. State Police if the agency is ever barred from investigating itself?

Police reform task force debates key questions with new state police chief

By: - November 11, 2020 6:00 am
Republicans block qualified immunity reform

People gather to protest against the shooting of Alton Sterling on July 10, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Alton Sterling was shot by a police officer in front of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge on July 5th, leading the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Should the Louisiana State Police continue to be allowed to investigate itself? Should police officers be allowed to turn off their body cameras at their own discretion? Members of the Louisiana Legislature’s police reform task force on Tuesday debated those questions with newly-appointed State Police Superintendent Col. Lamar Davis.

The task force’s Policy and Oversight Subcommittee invited Davis to testify at Tuesday morning’s meeting, marking the superintendent’s first public appearance since Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed him to the position on Oct. 30.

The 25-member panel, officially dubbed the Police Training, Screening, and De-escalation Task Force, is the brainchild of state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, who introduced the idea earlier this year in the wake of national outcry at the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.

Under current Louisiana State Police policy, troopers are supposed to turn their body cameras on when engaging in any incident or encounter with the public. However, they are given discretion to turn off their cameras in certain circumstances such as when they’re speaking to a supervisor for advice or guidance, speaking to a crime victim or performing some other task that might warrant privacy for either the trooper or someone in his vicinity, Davis told the committee members. 

“There are times when officers are speaking with supervisors or whenever you’re seeking guidance or having maybe a personal conversation that’s not directly involved in any particular event or incident,” Davis said. “We want to safeguard those moments for officers to be able to have those conversations and have that confidence that they can receive that guidance without being scrutinized and/or misconstrued.”

Fields seemed unconvinced that such a situation would warrant shutting off a camera. The senator asked Davis if he had ever encountered a situation where a trooper turned off a camera “at a time that could’ve been helpful to your investigation.”

“Yes, sir,” Davis said “And at that particular time that’s when we go back and we retrain and/or discipline as need be.”

State Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, joined Fields’ line of questioning. 

“Maybe the supervisor is giving bad advice,” Jordan said. “Shouldn’t we be able to scrutinize that?”

Jordan said it would make more sense to always have the cameras rolling and later redact or edit out any parts that warrant privacy: “I know there are ways, technologically, that we can do that.”  

New Orleans Police Capt. Michael Glasser, the head of the Police Association of New Orleans and a member of the task force, said having the cameras on at all times is “imminently impractical” due to the high cost of storing video footage. 

The U.S. Department of Justice recommends local police agencies adopt body camera policies that require officers to have the cameras on at all times with limited exceptions such as when speaking to crime witnesses who have requested to not be recorded.

Rep. Jordan also asked Davis why the state police should be allowed to investigate itself for serious incidents alleging trooper misconduct or during incidents when troopers are accused of wrongly shooting someone.

“I’m just curious, is it a best practice for an agency to investigate itself?” Jordan asked.

“That I can’t answer right now,” Davis said. “I can tell you we do have very competent, very capable personnel with integrity, and I feel very comfortable with our personnel conducting objective investigations and allowing the evidence to determine the outcome and lead us to where we need to be.”

Rep. Jordan pointed out that when officers with local agencies shoot a person, in an attempt to minimize bias, the state police are called to investigate. However, the state police does not bring in a third party to investigate when, for example, its officers shoot someone. It assigns such inquiries to its internal affairs division.

“I think we’ve made somewhat of a statement that we don’t want those agencies investigating themselves, but when it comes to state police, we’re sort of left with a situation where state police is, in fact, investigating itself,” Jordan said. “So just my guess, my intuition tells me that’s not a best practice.”

The state police is currently investigating itself in the case of Ronald Greene, a Black man who died in troopers’ custody in 2019. Troopers initially told Greene’s family that he died on impact when his vehicle crashed during a pursuit outside Monroe. But a civil rights attorney for Greene’s family says body camera footage taken at the scene shows Greene was choked, beaten and repeatedly shocked by troopers following the crash.

Also concerning that case, the Associated Press reported on a 27-second audio clip from a responding trooper’s body camera, in which a trooper is heard telling a colleague, “I beat the ever-living f— out of him” — presumably referring to Greene. That trooper died when he crashed his car soon after learning he had been fired for his role in Greene’s death, according to the AP.

Sen. Fields agreed with Jordan that internal investigations are not best practice. 

“You know, we can’t have agencies investigating themselves on those types of encounters, and I think you would agree with that,” Fields said to Davis. “Certainly that’s one thing this task force is going to be faced with soon as to who will investigate you.”

The task force members are currently considering tapping the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office and parish sheriffs to investigate when troopers are accused of wrongdoing.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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