The Appeal Podcast: Brutality in Baton Rouge
With Appeal contributors Clarissa Sosin and Daryl Khan.
Following the Alton Sterling shooting in the summer of 2016, the national media briefly turned its attention to Baton Rouge—a city marked by a long history of segregation and racist policing. After the killing, local politicians promised reform but two-and-a-half years on there’s been little to no progress—some say the situation has only gotten worse. This week’s guests, Appeal contributors Clarissa Sosin and Daryl Khan, join us from Baton Rouge to discuss recent cases of police brutality and how reformers are working to push back, long after the national spotlight has faded.
Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, Facebook at The Appeal’s main webpage and as always you can like and subscribe to us on iTunes. In the wake of the Alton Sterling shooting in the summer of 2016, the national media turned its attention to Baton Rouge, a city marked by a long history of segregation and racist policing. After the killing, local politicians promised reform, but two and a half years on there has been little to no progress and in many ways the situation has gotten worse. This week’s guests, Appeal contributors Clarissa Sosin and Daryl Khan join us from Baton Rouge to discuss recent cases of police brutality and how reformers are working to push back long after the national spotlight is faded away.
Clarissa Sosin: Everybody talks about the white Dodge Chargers and they know when the team, which is now called the Street Crimes Unit, is going to patrol their neighborhood and when they see those Chargers, like we’ve been interviewing in a neighborhood and the Chargers have started to come on their patrol and people started coming in off the street because they just didn’t want to be outside to have any interaction.
Daryl Khan: A deeper problem than just guys in Chargers jumping out. It’s that the reason they do it and the reason it continues to happen is because it’s rewarding. The culture is rewarding and no one’s punished. You know, it’s still ostensibly a democracy here, but as long as these patterns of like just deeply entrenched segregation persist, it’s not going to stop.
Adam: Before we get to this week’s podcast, we want to issue a slight correction from last week’s episode “The Power of Sheriffs”. An earlier version of the podcast posted online stated that football player Aaron Hernandez had died in the Bristol County jail. In fact, he died at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.
Adam: Thank you so much for coming on The Appeal.
Clarissa Sosin: Thanks for having us.
Daryl Khan: Thank you.
Adam: So y’all have, I think I can say y’all in this context, ya’ll have been in Baton Rouge for some time reporting on the Baton Rouge Police Department, um, specifically surrounding the case of Steve Young. Not to be confused with the quarterback, but he’s a 42 year old man, a black man in Baton Rouge who has been in the news lately due to his interactions with the Baton Rouge Police Department. Can we start by talking about his case and what the broader issues are with the Baton Rouge Police Department for those who are uneducated or unaware of what’s going on down there?
Clarissa Sosin: Yeah, so Steve Young’s case is a great example of how the Baton Rouge Police Department is over-policing and using excessive force in the predominantly black neighborhoods in North Baton Rouge. Young was parking his bike outside his apartment when they pulled up and the police say that he had a blunt and that’s why they stopped him.
Clarissa Sosin: But he says he didn’t have one and that there wasn’t even really initial interaction that they just kind of came charging at him. Um, and what resulted was a like six minute, I mean I don’t know if it was exactly six minutes, but like a six minute long beating where he got tasered, he got maced in the face, he was dragged by his handcuffs at one point. You can see it in the videos that were captured by bystanders.
Adam: Yeah. We’ll have that video linked in the show notes on The Appeal website. So definitely look at that.
Daryl Khan: The case went to a hearing over the body camera footage on December 20th in the Judicial Court building, the big court building in downtown Baton Rouge. And uh, what was significant about that, and it’s, it’s not just the beating that is the main problem or just the excessive force or how commonplace it is. One thing about that kind of policing is that it has, and this is a generally, a general kind of problem that the city is always dealing with is how to enlist its citizens in helping stop crime. Um, but because the relationship is so fractured since, I mean one might say since Alton Sterling, but a lot of people would tell you Alton Sterling just exposed what has been a common practice in Baton Rouge policing as far as anyone can remember. But, uh, since that became public, those videos came out, you have a real deeply broken relationship. And the police department and the city are always coming up with different programs to kind of get people to help out. But this kind of thing leads to distrust. It leads to an adversarial relationship. The police aren’t there to serve people, they’re just there to swoop in, intimidate, and leave.
Adam: This was the Street Crime Unit, which is sort of, a lot of police departments have this kind of quasi paramilitary, I know that NYPD has their plain clothes who kind of jump out of cars and act like Jack Bauer. Is this the sort of general ethos of this particular unit that uh, attacked Mr. Young?
Clarissa Sosin: Okay. So yeah, so the Street Crime Unit, we’ve heard about it in basically every interview, and older generations will call them the “jump out boys,” like a more informal version of this unit. But then the BRAVE Team, which is what a lot of most people refer to the unit as, which is the Baton Rouge Area of Violence Elimination program, it’s actually a program that no longer exists. And it was started as a program to like, they got federal money and it was to work to improve relations between the police department and the community. And a part of that was this unit that was launched underneath the BRAVE program that was going to go out into high crime areas and really target drugs and guns and just everything.
Daryl Khan: In high crime neighborhoods.
Clarissa Sosin: Yeah. And basically what ended up happening was they bought a bunch of Dodge Chargers. I don’t know what else they got but-
Adam: Yeah, you can see it in the video. They got these black Dodge Chargers.
Clarissa Sosin: Yeah.
Daryl Khan: Well white ones. The white ones that are associated with what we have heard is those other guys are just nearby and came for backup.
Adam: Oh okay.
Clarissa Sosin: Yeah. So everybody talks about the white Dodge Chargers and they know when the team, which is now called the Street Crimes Unit, is going to patrol their neighborhood. And when they see those Chargers, like we’ve been interviewing in a neighborhood and the Chargers have started to come on their patrol and people started coming in off the street because they just, they didn’t want to be outside to have any interaction.
Adam: So they sort of cruise around. Again, this is something we see a lot in different jurisdictions as well. They kind of cruise along in their Chargers and sort of jump out. Thus the name “jump out boys” and they, this is very similar to the NYPD’s plain clothes unit that does the same thing sort of jumps out and tries to find active crime, right? Like drugs or whatever crime, quote unquote “crime,” which is a huge recipe for abuse. I know that in the case of NYPD, the plains clothes unit that does virtually the same thing, has meaningfully more civilian complaints and force encounters, I think something like half of all force encounters and they make up like 11 percent of the police force. So for those who are just sort of trying to put this in context, um, Roger Ebert always had a rule when he, he said, when you’re a movie reviewer if you’re going to use a superlative and say something’s the best or the worst, you have to be damn sure that for the rest of your life, you’re consistent. Uh, with that, you know, if you say this is the best romantic comedy, 20 years from now you have to say the same thing. So we’re all, we’re all, I’m very hesitant to say something is the worst, but how would you rank Baton Rouge if you had to editorialize a little bit in terms of other police departments in terms of its track record with violence and racism? Would you put it in the top five percent?
Daryl Khan: It’s not just about racist policing, it’s about just this culture of abuse that I think is allowed to thrive because the segregation is so intense here. You know, you’re talking about a state, as soon as somebody, a former police officer here told us we’re not just crossing one Mason Dixon line here, we’re crossing two Mason Dixons lines. We’re in the deep South and you know, there is a deeper problem than just guys in Chargers jumping out. It’s that the reason they do it and the reason it continues to happen is because it’s rewarding, the culture is rewarded and no one’s punished, you know, or it’s still ostensibly a democracy here, but as long as these patterns of like just deeply entrenched segregation persist it’s not gonna stop and as far as it, you know, it’s, and, and the other part of that question, I guess it’s not just the police department, it’s the DA’s office, it’s the state Attorney General’s office, it’s the governor, you know, it’s the US Attorney. It’s the sort of good old boy network that thrives here and allows for this kind of thing to happen. Back to my original point, I kinda got off track, you know, we’re talking about Steven Young and the hearing in December 20th. So there was hearing to get the body camera footage.
Adam: Right. So let’s talk about that.
Daryl Khan: So you have this body camera footage that the police department says exonerates their officers.
Daryl Khan: Well, everybody heard this before. When the original Alton Sterling videos came out and the police department says, kind of laughingly like, ‘trust us, you know, this guy had it coming, you know, you’ll see the video, if you saw the video.’ Well the question is, well, why can’t we in the press and the citizens of Baton Rouge who have good reason to be skeptical of their police department’s credibility, just show it. They obfuscate and they try to like say, ‘oh well,’ they use sort of language to make this seem way more complicated than it is. And the language is like, ‘well, there’s exemptions due to investigations and all this nonsense.’ It’s just nonsense. The mayor and the police chief can easily say ‘here, here it is.’ Right? And what’s even more fascinating about Steven Young’s case is that the normal exemptions or exceptions that the city would cite for not releasing it have been exhausted. They’ve been exhausted. Like we talked to somebody from the city yesterday and you know, there’s nothing left. The officers have been cleared. So there’s no investigation of the officers. Steven Young has made the conscious, very voluntary decision to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to get myself in trouble.’ If he’s lying he’s only impugning his own character and hurting his own case. So he’s made that decision by coming out and saying, ‘yeah, I’m going to speak up on this.’ So if it does come out to show that he was like a wild and violent person when the officers approached them, well that’s only going to hurt him. Right? Officers are cleared. The witnesses have come forward already, right? They’ve turned over their own cell phone video. So they are public. So we’ve hit the wall and every single theoretical reason this isn’t out. And, you know, another story we worked on for The Appeal was a similar case, except that man died and there’s body camera footage allegedly.
Clarissa Sosin: And security camera footage in the building.
Daryl Khan: And security camera footage. Right. And so ‘just trust us.’ We don’t have to take your word for it. The citizens of Baton Rouge don’t have to take anyone’s word for it, just show it.
Adam: Right. So there’s major transparency issues with the BRPD is what you’re saying.
Daryl Khan: It’s not just the BRPD man.
Adam: Well it’s the entire city, right?
Daryl Khan: Yeah. Because again, this is, this is the mayor and the police chief. The mayor can just say ‘chief, you’re going to get fired if you don’t turn over the damn video. I don’t want people to think, well, it’s got to go to this committee and that.’ Do you know what I mean? There’s a lot of doohickey nonsense, formal sounding words people use. It’s a video man. You know, hit send on an email. There you go. It’s done. You know, and the guy who in the other story involving a guy named Calvin Toney, that we wrote about, that officer was awarded a Medal of Valor. So clearly if he got this Medal of Valor from the city and the police department at a casino, then it stands to reason the video is going to show him being a complete hero. So what’s there to hide? I’m not trying to be cynical, man, the officers who are doing it right, they are heroes. I mean they, they do heroic shit. This is not an indictment on a police department on the very idea of policing, but the kind of policing that’s being rewarded here, it’s not real policing, it’s not going out and saving people who are in trouble. It’s treating everybody like they’re criminals.
Adam: Well, right. I mean obviously this is a pattern in a lot of cities, especially, I mean, it takes on a different character in different parts of the country, in the South, obviously it has its own historical baggage, especially when you talk about the issue of segregation, which I, which I do want to talk about. Um, I know that that’s a huge issue where I am in Chicago according to one 2017 study, Baton Rouge is the thirteenth most segregated city in the country, which is pretty darn high. Um, New Orleans is the sixth most segregated city in the country. Can we talk about the issue of segregation in Baton Rouge and what that, how that reflects on how it’s policed?
Clarissa Sosin: Yeah. So we had one on my first trip down here. Daryl had been here before. On my first trip down here we spoke with a youth activist and she was talking to us about, um, Florida, Florida Boulevard, Florida Street, depending on where you are on, on it.
Daryl Khan: Florida Avenue.
Clarissa Sosin: Yeah. Florida Avenue. It kind of depends where you are on it. Confused us for a bit, but she called that the Mason Dixon Line of Baton Rouge. It runs east-west. It divides the city north-south, and it’s basically North Baton Rouge is black, South Baton Rouge is white and there are some pockets on both sides, but that’s basically how it’s divided and it’s easy to live your life in South Baton Rouge and not know what’s happening just across Florida. And that’s what happens with a lot of people.
Adam: Right. It’s sort of taken for granted in a lot of these places. Um, I know some people who were down there, this happens a lot with Black Lives Matter, right? With Alton Sterling, there’s this outrage, justified outrage, people go down, they protest. I know there was a lot of tense protests. The police did some pretty brutal crackdowns in Baton Rouge, uh, people are still in jail or, or facing trial for that a couple of years ago. And then of course it dies down. Right? Then people sort of, the national attention wears off. To what extent did Alton Sterling change anything at all? And to what extent did it show the kind of limits and pitfalls of, of the idea of body cams as a mechanism for meaningful reform?
Clarissa Sosin: So I think when it comes to body cams, it’s shown that like, so when Alton Sterling was shot, body cams were a pilot program in the city. Now they’re citywide, but you’ll still find, like in the Calvin Toney instance, the body cam fell off and so it recorded but it didn’t record on the officer’s body. In a recent recent kind of crazy incident where this one officer who had shot and killed a black man during a traffic stop and then was put back on the force and cleared of everything and a year later he was involved in another traffic stop and shot at and missed another young black man. He turned off his body cam. And so it’s like you can have the body cam program, you can gather all the body cam, but if it’s not used appropriately or if it exists and you just don’t release it to the public, then there’s really like, it just, it doesn’t help.
Adam: Yeah. This was a major thing that people, I mean, I was tweeting about this in 2014 when people were rushing to the body cams and they know a lot of other people were as well, that if there isn’t transparency in how the footage is released, if the police control the footage, then the point of body cams is actually, it can actually be worse, right? Because then they can release footage when it’s exculpatory and they can hold onto it when it’s inculpatory. Is that something, is that a pattern you’ve seen in your experiences in Baton Rouge?
Clarissa Sosin: They’ve barely released, they released it twice.
Adam: Yeah. Because if it was a story about how they saved a kitten, we would have the footage tomorrow.
Clarissa Sosin: Yeah.
Clarissa Sosin: I mean, in the incidents that I was talking about where the guy shot at the young men and missed, um, the officer actually lied about it and said that the guy shot at him first. And there was all this like, ‘Hey, he’s supposed to have body cameras, supposed to have a body cam, like this would prove it.’ And then it ended up, I mean he just turned it off so there would be no record.
Adam: Yeah, there’s not a penalty to turn it off then.
Clarissa Sosin: Yeah, exactly. If you don’t follow the policies, there ended up being dash cam or back dash cam on the car that caught audio of it. So people, they faced enough pressure that they had to kind of come forward about that.
Adam: Right, right.
Daryl Khan: What happened in 2016 it’s almost, I hate to use this cliche, but it’s a perfect storm of the kind of impulse I’m talking about here. And it’s the kind of thing we in the, in the coasts just ignore and we don’t care about and it’s come back to haunt us in Washington because that spirit has been unleashed in the White House. It’s because we ignore this stuff or we say, ‘oh, well it’s the South,’ or ‘oh, that’s just like the legacy whatever down there.’ So you have peaceful protesters, right? Organizing an exercise in their First Amendment rights and to say, ‘hey man, look, this guy got shot, we don’t think you did the right thing.’ Fine. And what the Baton Rouge Police Department did was send in tanks with military grade weapons and guys, both Louisiana State Police and local police officers with long guns and decked out in some kind of dystopian military gear.
Daryl Khan: And a reporter who worked for me as an intern at the time was arrested and you know, it’s just, it’s the kind of thing to me, if you look at the, there’s a great video made of that by another one of my interns, Marco Poggio for another website called JJIE and if you look at that, and if people looked at that and didn’t understand the level of police power, the level of state power being turned against citizens, I don’t know what is going to awaken them to what’s going on. You know, it gets frustrating when you cover stories like this and you see like Jim Acosta on a front page and Rutenberg and other media columnists grabbing their necklaces because, ‘oh dear, uh, our media, our First Amendment rights are under assault because the president took some dudes microphone away at a made for TV event.’ Well, if they would pay attention to what’s going on in this country, they will know that there are plenty, you know, I, I kind of jokingly say sometimes when we’re down here, like if we just told everybody that Vladimir Putin was behind-
Adam: Oh yeah, it’d be wall to wall. It’d be wall to wall.
Daryl Khan: The policing in Baton Rouge and the segregation then maybe everybody would start writing about it. Um, they’re, you know, Baton Rouge isn’t alone. I think Baton Rouge is an exempla as a, as a, a fairly large city down here, and as a state capitol, if you worried about excessive power, if you’re worried about, you know, uh, the state steamrolling citizens’ rights, if you’re worried about the press being silenced, if you’re worried about using power to crush people’s dissent, well you don’t have to wait around for Trump to say something else. You know.
Adam: You mentioned Jim Rutenberg, who I refer to as the Jay Leno of media criticism because it’s sort of the most banal middlebrow yeah, we saw this during the J20 crackdown, you know, there was a few dozen people facing 60 years in jail for over a year. Um, and Jim Rutenberg didn’t write about it once, but yeah, and then there’s sort of this vague transgression that’s done to like the White House press corps and then it’s all hands on deck. If you’re not in the club media criticism wise, a lot like the establishment media critics like Rutenberg at The New York Times don’t care. Um, Brian Stelter at CNN the same thing.
Daryl Khan: It just makes you wonder, like people watch Selma and there were, their conscience was struck and they were moved morally to some kind of reflection and action. That happened to people in Baton Rouge man. I mean.
Adam: Yeah, no, it was pretty brutal. I know people who were injured and I don’t know, a ton of people, so the numbers were probably high. When it comes to issues of quote unquote “police reform” or people who are trying to push back against the systems of segregation and police violence what groups do you see down there working on it that you can maybe talk about or sort of talk about that’s positive, like what are the forces trying to push back against this?
Clarissa Sosin: Um, well so we met with, uh, a retired BRPD officer who is now actually a police chief in a neighboring town and we had this amazing five hour long interview with him and he’s not an activist group. He’s not I guess a citizen, I mean he is a citizen, but you know what I mean, he’s, he’s still a police officer, but he is very actively working on this issue.
Daryl Khan: Yeah, I mean he is articulating a different sort of vision of what policing can be because literally across the northern border of Baton Rouge, I mean if you didn’t see a little sign that said, “Welcome to Baker,” you wouldn’t even know you left Baton Rouge, you know, this is a guy who did all the heroic stuff. He was out there in the most violent neighborhoods in the most crime ridden neighborhoods. Um, but he understood that he was there to help the people who are suffering from that crime as well. You know, he said he was, he saw himself as sort of like a superhero, you know, from like Marvel and DC and like that’s what an officer should see himself, as serving the public and not reverting to violence as a synonym for policing.
Clarissa Sosin: And he was telling us how at one point while he was at the BRPD he started a program where he sent officers out into the highest crime neighborhoods and their goal was forty contacts but no tickets. And if they gave out any tickets then like they were out, they couldn’t be a part of the program.
Adam: Right. This is, this is part of like a sort of community policing philosophy, but I mean is there a lot of empirical evidence that that actually works? Or is that mostly just kind of (21:53)
Daryl Khan: What does “work” mean?
Adam: Reduce the aggregate violence leveled upon both in terms of incarceration and actual like, you know, police shootings on poor communities.
Daryl Khan: We wouldn’t know. What he was doing was different from what I’ve seen other community policing programs do, but we’ll never know because it was shut down within a few months, which led him to retire.
Adam: Well, there you go. Well, so yeah, it must have been threatening someone then.
Daryl Khan: I guess. I guess it sort of reminds me, that question kind of reminds me sometimes of like the debates we had about torture under the Bush administration. It’s like, you know, we have a very firm set of rights guaranteed to us and it almost is moot to me whether or not the policing works because the alternate isn’t in any fundamental way policing at all.
Adam: Well, yeah, I guess what I meant by “work” is that community policing was, as a term was, was peppered all throughout the 1994 Crime Bill. Right? The community policing has long been a euphemism to just give police departments more money, uh, which they then in turn use to do things like jump out boys. Right? It’s, it’s a, it’s a marketing-
Daryl Khan: This guy had a small unit, I think it was like a eight to twelve guys and the money was in their overtime that they got. And they were, they were, you know, he said, you know, they all came in with the aggressive wanting to knock heads and then he won them over. I guess the one thing I would say though, you know, I saw Toy Story 3 and you know, the, the people in power, you know, they work with the consent of the governed, right? In this country. And this problem with the police and this lack of trust and this animosity is profound and the level of frustration and anger we’re encountering with every interview does not bode well to me for the future peace in this city. I don’t know what event it’s going to take. You know, sometimes it’s hard to predict which one of these events of police abuse grab people’s attention. Do you know what I mean? It’s hard to know which one grabs a zeitgeist, but there’s going to be one in this city and I might even be one that seemed surprisingly relative to say Alton Sterling or Steven Young. Maybe not even that bad on the scale of things, but I don’t know when, but it’s going to happen and it’s going to lead to serious civil unrest here.
Adam: Well I think that’s a perfect place to end. A hopeful yet ominous note. Thank you so much for, for coming on.
Clarissa Sosin: Thanks for having us.
Daryl Khan: Thank you.
Adam: Thank you to our guests Clarissa Sosin and Daryl Khan. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main webpage and as always you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.