In Louisiana, a father, a son and a culture of police abuse

·5 min read

MONROE, La. (AP) — Growing up in the piney backwoods of northern Louisiana, where yards were dotted with crosses and the occasional Confederate flag, Jacob Brown was raised on hunting, fishing and dreams of becoming a state trooper.

But within weeks of arriving at the Louisiana State Police training academy in Baton Rouge, instructors pegged Brown as trouble. One wrote that he was an arrogant, chronic rule breaker with “toxic” character traits that should disqualify him from ever joining the state’s elite law enforcement agency.

Fortunately for Brown, the state police was known as a place where who you knew often trumped what you did, and where most introductory chats eventually got around to a simple question: Who’s your daddy?

Jacob Brown is the son of Bob Brown, then part of the state police’s top brass who would rise to second in command despite being reprimanded years earlier for calling Black colleagues the n-word and hanging a Confederate flag in his office. And the son would not only become a “legacy hire” but prove his instructors prophetic by becoming one of the most violent troopers in the state, reserving most of his punches, flashlight strikes and kicks for the Black drivers he pulled over along the soybean and cotton fields near where he grew up.

When friends and colleagues would ask Bob Brown how his first-born was getting along as a trooper, he’d respond with a seemingly innocuous boast:

“He’s knocking heads.”

The Browns’ story is woven throughout the recent history of the Louisiana State Police and represents what dozens of current and former troopers have described to The Associated Press as a culture of impunity, nepotism and in some cases outright racism.

It illustrates the dynamics that have made the agency the focus of a sprawling federal investigation that initially examined the deadly 2019 arrest of Black motorist Ronald Greene and has since expanded to include a string of other cases -- several involving Jacob Brown -- in which troopers are accused of beatings and cover-ups, even when they are caught on video.

“If you’re a part of the good ol’ boy system, there’s no wrong you can do,” said Carl Cavalier, a Black state trooper who was recently fired in part for criticizing the agency’s handling of brutality cases.

It’s an us-versus-them culture, they say, in which many troopers and higher-ups are more interested in covering for each other than living up to the agency’s image of honor, duty, courage and “doing the right thing.”

It’s a culture in which troopers feel so insulated from scrutiny that they can banter about their brutality, including texting each other photographs of a battered and bloodied suspect with the quip “he shouldn’t have resisted.”

And it’s a culture in which 67% of troopers’ uses of force in recent years targeted Black people — double the percentage of the state’s Black population.

“There’s a corruption that allows the reprobates in state police to just sort of do as they damn well please,” said W. Lloyd Grafton, a use-of-force expert who is consulting on the Greene family’s civil case and served on the Louisiana State Police Commission. “Nobody holds them accountable.”

A potential reckoning in the Louisiana State Police came in the wake of Greene’s death on a rural roadside near Monroe on May 10, 2019 -- a fatality troopers initially blamed on a car crash at the end of a high-speed chase.

State police later acknowledged Greene was involved in a “struggle” with troopers but officials from Gov. John Bel Edwards on down refused for more than two years to publicly release the body camera video. When it was eventually published by the AP this spring, the footage showed white troopers swarming Greene’s car, stunning, punching and dragging him by his ankle shackles, even as he appeared to surrender, wailing, “I’m your brother! I’m scared, I’m scared!”

Fallout brought federal scrutiny not just to the troopers but to whether top brass obstructed justice to protect them.

Greene’s death was also among at least a dozen cases in the last decade identified by the AP in which state troopers or their bosses ignored or concealed evidence of beatings, deflected blame and impeded efforts to root out misconduct.

Many involved Jacob Brown. In one long-suppressed video, he can be seen pummeling a Black motorist with a flashlight, in another he slams a Black motorist into a police cruiser, and in yet another Brown and other troopers beat a Black man and hoist him to his feet by his dreadlocks.

“It’s no different than organized crime,” said John Winzer, Greene’s nephew. “They hang together. They eat together and ride at night together. And s--- like this happens.”

Even the agency’s superintendent acknowledged that the state police have lost the public’s trust, due in part to an “old-fashioned culture” in Louisiana’s northern parishes in which some troopers are conditioned to punish anyone who disrespects the badge.

“It’s uncomfortable to hear, ‘You guys are bullies.’ It’s uncomfortable to hear, ‘We thought y’all were better than this,’” said Col. Lamar Davis, a veteran Black trooper brought in a year ago as a reformer.

Davis has reorganized his staff, overhauled use-of-force policies and mandated all troopers attend training on intrinsic bias. But he acknowledged it may not be enough to stave off growing calls for a U.S. Justice Department “pattern and practice” probe of potential racial profiling.

Davis also told AP that he still doesn’t have a full grasp of how pervasive excessive force may be among his officers. That’s in part because supervisors have for years failed to review thousands of hours of body camera footage.

Asked whether he is confident there isn’t another Ronald Greene case still out there that state police brass don’t yet know about, Davis didn’t hesitate.

“No, I’m not,” he said. “We’ve not looked at every video.”