BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – A photo of two white Baton Rouge police officers wearing dark makeup has prompted an apology by the police chief of the Louisiana capital city.
The photo was taken before a 1993 undercover drug sting in a predominantly black community that the police chief at the time recalled as “very successful,” The Advocate reported.
Current Chief Murphy Paul issued an apology Monday after the photo surfaced.
The photo was posted online over the weekend by The Rouge Collection, a black-owned urban media collection. It shows two officers, Crimestoppers coordinator Lt. Don Stone and since-retired police Capt. Frankie Caruso, posing above a caption reading “Soul Brothers.”
“Blackface photographs are inappropriate and offensive,” Paul wrote in a statement. “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.”
Paul said there will not be any administrative ramification for Stone because of a statute of limitation on internal officer investigations. However, he noted there are now policies in place to prevent officers from engaging in such practices.
Caruso and the police chief at the time, Greg Phares, have defended the decision to have white officers dressing to appear black as a part of the police operation. They said it was done only with the intent to get drugs off the streets – not to degrade or make fun of African-Americans.
And while the officers’ behavior did not quite match that which threatens the careers of two top Virginia politicians, the photo has triggered discussions about how to address and move on from the image. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and that state’s Attorney General Mark Herring both admitted earlier this month to wearing blackface years ago. They remain in office despite varying calls for their ouster.
“I would like to see communities recognize what was wrong with it, and act from that,” said Maxine Crump, founder of Dialogue on Race Louisiana, a local nonprofit working to eradicate racism. “Defending it and justifying it does not change the fact it was wrong then, even if they weren’t aware.”
Walter “Geno” McLaughlin, a black activist who has worked with the police department on community initiatives, said, “It’s always unsettling when you see people deciding to go with blackface. . I don’t think there’s ever a place for it. . It’s time to have a conversation about it.”
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome also weighed in with a statement.
“Blackface is more than just a costume,” she wrote. “It invokes a painful history in this country and it is not appropriate in any situation.”
An Advocate story in 1993 about the operation noted there were seven undercover police officers involved. Stone and Caruso dressed up to appear black because the two black narcotics officers at that time were too well-known and easily recognized in the community, the officers said then.
Caruso likened his actions to other undercover work in his career, including posing as a gay man, a biker and a prostitute.
“You got to dress the part,” Caruso said. “It wasn’t done offensively.”
Neither Caruso nor Phares would describe the makeup as blackface.
“I have no problem whatsoever with that these officers did,” said Phares, who currently serves as chief deputy at the East Feliciana Sheriff’s Office. “For anyone to try to make this some sort of racial issue two decades or more later is just beyond ridiculous.”
But Crump said because of the painful history of blackface in America, it is always wrong.
A release from the Baton Rouge Chief can be read below:
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.