Louisiana Cops Wore Blackface In 1993 To Fool Drug Buyers

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BATON ROUGE, LA — Two Baton Rouge narcotics officers wore blackface as part of a 1993 undercover operation, the city police department has acknowledged after pictures from one of its yearbooks surfaced showing the pair with their faces painted black.

The photo, captioned “soul brothers,” was taken during an approved undercover sting that involved selling fake cocaine in a predominantly black neighborhoods. In a statement Monday, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul apologized for the photos, saying the officers wouldn’t be allowed to wear blackface either on or off duty, but the department “cannot apply existing policies to conduct that happened before the policies were in place.”

The pictures surfaced amid debate nationwide about the racism attached to wearing blackface, which dates back to mid- to late-19th century minstrel shows that presented exaggerated and dehumanized caricatures of African-Americans.

Virginia voters are pressuring their governor, Ralph Northam, to resign after a 35-year-old college yearbook pictures purportedly showing him in blackface surfaced. In a new and troubling twist to the state’s history of race and politics last week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said he wore blackface to a college party in 1980. And in Florida, Michael Ertel, the newly appointed secretary of state resigned in January after the Tallahassee Democrat published photos of him wearing blackface as a Hurricane Katrina victim at a private Halloween party 14 years ago.

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Northam in particular has been criticized for waffling on whether it was him in the photos, and the saying he has evolved over the years, but failing to say how he ha changed. Paul left no ambiguities in his statement.

“Blackface photographs are inappropriate and offensive,” he said. “They were inappropriate then and are inappropriate today.”

The photos were sent Baton Rouge media in an email that said one of the officers pictured, Lt. Don Stone, is still a member of the force., the local news outlet The Rouge Collection reported The other officer is identified one of the officers as Lt. Don Stone, who is still on the force. The other officer in blackface Advocate, is now-retired Capt. Frankie Caruso, according to The Advocate.

Local media outlet the Rouge Collection recently surfaced a Baton Rouge Police Department yearbook picture featuring two officers with their skin painted black, wearing flannels, hoodies and sunglasses. The photo is captioned “Soul brothers.”

The Baton Rouge Collection identified one of the officers as Lt. Don Stone, who is still on the force. The other, according to The Advocate, is now-retired Capt. Frankie Caruso.

Police chopped up welder’s chalk to make it look like crack cocaine for the undercover operation in “drug hotspots” in black neighborhoods, The Advocate reported. Ten people were arrested in the sting. The 1993 article said Caruso’s wife “made him and Stone up to look black,” and Stone reportedly remarked at the time: “Not only do they not know we’re cops ― they don’t even know we’re white!”

The Baton Rouge Police Department had two black officers at the time, but they were well known in the areas targeted for the sting, Caruso and Greg Phares, the police chief at the time, told The Advocate in an interview published Monday.

“You got to dress the part,” Caruso said. “It wasn’t done offensively,”

Phares, who is now the chief deputy at the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana, told The Advocate he has “no problem whatsoever with that these officers did.”

“For anyone to try to make this some sort of racial issue two decades or more later is just beyond ridiculous,” he said.

In a separate statement Monday, Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome condemned the use of blackface in a police investigation.

“While this may have been department-approved 25 years ago, that does not make it right,” she said. “Blackface is more than just a costume. It invokes a painful history in this country and it is not appropriate in any situation.”

Baton Rouge is among about three dozen Louisiana cities included in a 1980 Justice Department edict to either diversify their police forces or risk losing federal funding. A civil rights investigation discovered a pattern of discriminatory hiring practices and a law enforcement system that had been dominated by white males since its inception.

In its most recent report to the Justice Department in mid-year 2018, the Baton Rouge Police Department said only about 33 percent of its officers are black, compared with 55 percent of residents. Also, only about 9 percent of the 643 officers employed by the BRPD are women.

Many of the cities included in the decree issued nearly four decades ago have been released after increasing the diversity of their police departments, but Baton Rouge still has ground to make up.

Gary Chambers, the co-publisher of Baton Rouge Collection, told the Huffington Post that the photos of the officers in blackface showed a pattern of discrimination within the department.

“This shows how bad the department had been,” Chambers said. “Rather than hire more black officers they justified painting officers in blackface.”

In a tweet, Chambers said that “instead of hiring and promoting more black officers,” the police department at the time “would paint white officers black to do prostitution & narcotics stings.”

Paul said members of his department recently returned from training in California on procedural justice policing that will become a permanent part of the training academy curriculum for new officers as well as the annual in-service training for officers.

“The Baton Rouge Police Department is diligently working to apply 21st Century Policing best practices and standards to our agency,” he said.

Photo by Renee Schiavone/Patch

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