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DOJ opens civil rights investigation into Louisiana State Police practices

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The Robert F. Kennedy Building in Washington, D.C., which is home to the headquarters of the United States Department of Justice. Photographed by w:User:Coolcaesar on August 12, 2006.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that it is opening a civil rights investigation into whether the Louisiana State Police engage in racially discriminatory patterns and practices.

This is the first time in nearly two decades that the DOJ has launched a civil rights investigation into a statewide police force – similar “pattern and practice” investigations have often led to consent decrees with law enforcement departments, including the New Orleans Police Department.

“Every American, regardless of race, has the right to constitutional policing,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Clarke said the DOJ found evidence of Louisiana state troopers targeting Black drivers in their traffic enforcement efforts, using racial slurs and disproportionately using excessive force against Black residents and other people of color.

“We received information about the repeated use of excessive force often against people who were suspected of minor traffic offenses, already handcuffed or not resisting,” Clarke said. “In some cases, the injuries these individuals suffered were severe, including the death of at least one individual.”

One of those individuals was Ronald Greene, the Black motorist who was fatally beaten by Louisiana state troopers on a Union Parish roadside three years ago after leading them on a high-speed chase.

Leaked bodycam footage of the incident thrust the Louisiana State Police's conduct into the national spotlight and prompted a federal criminal investigation that remains ongoing.

“Our goal is to regain the trust of those who have lost confidence in the system and provide justice for all,” said Ronald Gathe, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana.

Clarke said the DOJ’s latest probe is separate from any criminal investigation, including the investigation into Ronald Greene’s in-custody death.

U.S. Attorney Brandon Brown of the Western District of Louisiana has empaneled a grand jury to consider criminal charges for the troopers involved in the fatal arrest, but recent reporting from the Associated Press suggests that prosecutors are doubtful that they can successfully bring a case that Greene’s civil rights were violated.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is expected to give testimony in a state legislative investigation on what he and other officials knew in the months after Greene’s death, said in a statement that he was briefed on the investigation before the DOJ’s announcement and that he fully supports the department’s efforts.

“It is deeply troubling that allegations of systemic misconduct exist that would warrant this type of investigation, but it is absolutely critical that all Louisianans, especially African Americans and other people of color, have their faith, confidence and trust in public safety officers restored,” Edwards said. “It is my expectation that all employees of the Louisiana State Police will cooperate fully and completely with this investigation. It is my commitment and that of Col. Lamar Davis to the U.S. Department of Justice that they will have complete cooperation from the agency.”

Edwards went on to praise Davis, who took over as the Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police in late 2020.

In a joint statement with Edwards, Davis echoed the governor’s commitment to cooperation and transparency with federal investigators.

“Our personnel truly make a difference in our communities, and I am grateful for the sacrifices they make on behalf of public safety,” Davis said. “That does not change the fact that we have had some employees violate the trust of our citizens and of their colleagues. When that occurs, it is incumbent upon our agency to uphold our public safety oath and make the changes necessary to ensure that this does not ever happen again.”

In his time in charge, Davis has banned chokeholds and the use of impact weapons on the head and neck and instituted new policies that require troopers to intervene when their colleagues use excessive force. But civil rights groups have criticized Davis and other top brass at the State Police for turning a blind eye to excessive use of force incidents, and allowing a system of abuse to develop.

Alanah Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said in a statement that there is a “culture of violence, terror and discrimination” within the Louisiana State Police.

“This systemic injustice can only be rectified if it is properly diagnosed,” Odoms said. “An independent, impartial, and comprehensive investigation of the agency conducted by the Department of Justice will be necessary and will produce a detailed set of remedial measures. A pattern-or-practice investigation will also identify the root causes of the misconduct so that they can be fixed, once and for all.”