Baton Rouge, Louisiana: A Louisiana police department is the latest entity to get caught in a scandal involving blackface, adding to a disturbingly growing list of offenders from the late 20th century.
The Baton Rouge Police Department issued an apology after the revelation of a photo showing two of its officers wearing blackface as part of a 1993 undercover operation in which they were impersonating drug dealers in a predominantly black neighborhood.
According to the news website The Rouge Collection, which first published the photo, media outlets in Louisiana’s capital city were emailed images of a BRPD yearbook with the photo of the two officers in blackface over the caption, “Soul brothers.’’ One of the policemen is making what appear to be gang signs.
“Blackface photographs are inappropriate and offensive. They were inappropriate then and are inappropriate today,’’ Police Chief Murphy Paul said in a statement. He explained the white officers in question were subject to a different code of conduct at the time.
“Today, we would not allow our officers to wear blackface in an official capacity under any circumstances. We have policies in place to prevent our officers from engaging in this type of behavior both on and off-duty.’’
The mounting instances of persons in position of authority shown to have links to the use of blackface have roiled politics in at least two states and sent some institutions scrambling to scrutinize their past for signs of such a practice.
On Jan. 24, Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned after the discovery of photos of him dressed as a woman with his face painted black at a 2005 Halloween party.
In Virginia, three of the state’s top elected leaders have been embroiled in blackface-related controversy, while a fourth one – Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the only African American in the quartet – has been accused of sexual assault by two women.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has resisted continued calls for his resignation since first admitting on Feb. 1 that he was one of the two persons – one wearing blackface, the other one in a Ku Klux Klan outfit – who appeared in a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. Northam later said he actually wasn’t in the photo but acknowledged darkening his face to resemble Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
Last Wednesday, state Attorney General Mark Herring – who initially was among the Democrats calling for Northam to step aside – acknowledged his own episode of wearing blackface while in college in 1980.
The next day, the Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported that state Sen. Thomas Norment, one of the leading Republicans in Virginia, oversaw a 1968 college yearbook that included several racist photos and slurs.
Also last week, the University of North Carolina denounced racist photos that appeared in a fraternity yearbook in 1979. Two other universities in the state, Wake Forest and Elon, acknowledged finding similarly racially offensive photos during examinations of their yearbooks, the ones from Wake Forest taken in the 1970s.
“I think every school, especially schools in the South, are probably examining yearbook materials,” Elon spokesman Dan Anderson told the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The admission by Baton Rouge authorities of its officers’ past tactics comes at a time of latent tensions between primarily white police departments and members of the black community in several cities.
In the last several years, young African Americans like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Stephon Clark have been killed by police, often under questionable circumstances, leading to widespread protests.
A 2018 study conducted by the UCLA School of Medicine concluded that police violence disproportionately affects young people of color. The study also showed African Americans are 2½ times more likely to die at the hands of police than whites.
Baton Rouge had its own prominent instance of a black man being killed by police in the case of Alton Sterling who, in 2016, was shot to death after two white officers wrestled him to the ground. Neither officer was charged.
For decades, Baton Rouge has lacked enough black representation in its police force, one of the reasons cited for the white officers – identified as Capt. Frankie Caruso and Lt. Don Stone – dressing in blackface during the 1993 sting operation, according to a story in the local Advocate newspaper.
Louisiana’s second-largest city remains under a 1980 consent decree that aims to improve opportunities for African Americans and women to get hired in the police and fire departments.
The Advocate reported in July that while blacks make up 55 percent of Baton Rouge’s population of 225,000, they only represent 33 percent of the police force. Whites compose 37 percent of the population and 65 percent of the police.
Statement By Police Chief Murphy Paul
The Baton Rouge Police Department was made aware of a post circulating on social media in which two Baton Rouge Police Officers are dressed in blackface. According to the post, the pictures are from a Baton Rouge Police Department yearbook. A preliminary review of the matter indicates the officers were working in an undercover capacity during a department-approved operation when the photos were taken. The Advocate published a story about the operation on February 22, 1993.
Blackface photographs are inappropriate and offensive. They were inappropriate then and are inappropriate today. The Baton Rouge Police Department would like to apologize to our citizens and to anyone who may have been offended by the photographs.
The photographs in the post were taken more than 25 years ago. Administratively, the department cannot apply existing policies to conduct that happened before the policies were in place. Policies that were existing at the time of the behavior would have to be applied. The department is bound by the Louisiana Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which places a timeline on administrative investigations related to officer conduct.
Today, we would not allow our officers to wear blackface in an official capacity under any circumstances. We have policies in place to prevent our officers from engaging in this type of behavior both on and off-duty.
Our BRPD Training Staff recently returned from Oakland Stockton, California where they received training on Procedural Justice Policing. The Procedural Justice Program will be part of the training academy curriculum for new BRPD officers, as well as our annual in-service training for all Baton Rouge Police Officers. The Baton Rouge Police Department is diligently working to apply 21st Century Policing best practices and standards to our agency.