The US Department of Justice said Thursday it’s opening an investigation into whether the Louisiana State Police engage in racially discriminatory policing and use excessive force – a development that follows high-profile cases including the 2019 death in police custody of Black motorist Ronald Greene.
Justice Department teams already have been conducting a criminal investigation into Greene’s death in Louisiana – and the new civil probe announced Thursday is separate and wider, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a news conference in Baton Rouge.
The new investigation will focus on whether the Louisiana State Police have “a pattern or practice of using excessive force,” and whether the agency “engages in racially discriminatory policing practice against Black people and other people of color,” Clarke said.
It comes after the Justice Department received disturbing reports “officers target Black residents in their traffic enforcement practices and in use of force,” Clarke said. Some reports involve the alleged use of racial slurs and derogatory terms by state troopers, as well as “unwarranted force after pursuit, involving the use of Tasers and blows to the head,” she said.
“We received information about … repeated use of excessive force, often against people who are suspected of minor traffic offenses; are already handcuffed; or are not resisting,” Clarke said.
“In some cases, the injuries these individuals suffered were severe, including the death of at least one individual,” Clarke said.
If the investigation finds violations of the Constitution or federal law, the Justice Department will detail the conclusions in a public report and work with the state to agree on remedies. If no agreement can be reached, the department can seek a solution in court, Clarke said.
This is the first pattern-or-practice investigation of a statewide law enforcement agency the Justice Department has opened in more than two decades, she said.
But it is the fifth the department has launched against any police agency since the start of the Biden administration, she said, including ongoing probes of departments in Minneapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; Phoenix; and Mount Vernon, New York, she said.
“Our goal is to regain the trust of those who have lost confidence in the system and provide justice for all,” said Ronald C. Gathe Jr., the US attorney for Louisiana’s Middle District.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and state police superintendent Col. Lamar Davis have pledged their support in the investigation, they said in a joint online statement.
“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.
Davis said state police staff “truly make a difference in our communities, and I am grateful for the sacrifices they make on behalf of public safety,” but “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,” Davis said.
Videos showed harsh arrest of Greene
Clarke said she recognizes the public is intensely interested in the Greene case, but she stressed the new probe was apart from any federal criminal investigation like that one.
“That (separate, criminal) investigation (into Greene’s death) remains ongoing, and we are limited in what we can say at this time,” Clarke said.
Greene, 49, died in May 2019 after what state police said was Greene resisting arrest and struggling with troopers following a chase and car crash outside the city of Monroe. However, his family said they initially were told Greene died on impact in the crash.
Police said Greene crashed after officers tried to stop him for a traffic violation. Body and dashboard camera videos of the incident – released two years after Greene’s death – showed Greene being pulled from his vehicle and being Tasered after the crash, and a trooper wrestling with him on the ground.
Video also shows a trooper punching him in the face and another punching his lower back while they try to handcuff him as he is lying face down. Audio from one trooper’s body camera reveals a telephone exchange after the beating, in which the trooper says, “I beat the ever-living f*** out of him, choked him and everything else trying to get him under control.”
An initial crash report from state police did not mention troopers using force against or arresting Greene.
A separate state police document said, “Greene was taken into custody after resisting arrest and a struggle with troopers,” and he eventually became unresponsive and died while being taken to a hospital.
Greene’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in May 2020 against the state troopers involved, as well as their superiors, seeking damages for payment of all medical and funeral expenses. No one has been charged in Greene’s death.
An initial report from a medical center listed the principal cause of Greene’s death as cardiac arrest, according to the lawsuit. He also had an “unspecified injury of head,” the suit reads.
Troopers have maintained Greene’s death “was caused by crash-related blunt force chest trauma that resulted in a fractured sternum and ruptured aorta” and said they used force “for their own personal safety and for the safety of the public,” according to court documents.
A Union Parish coroner’s autopsy report listed Greene’s cause of death as “cocaine induced agitated delirium complicated by motor vehicle collision, physical struggle, inflicted head injury, and restraint.” The report did not assign a manner of death.
“Cocaine induced agitated delirium” is a rare condition, according to researchers, and one of the conditions of “excited delirium,” a controversial diagnosis not recognized by major medical organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association or the World Health Organization. It is, however, recognized by smaller organizations dealing with emergency medicine, such as the American College of Emergency Physicians.
The autopsy report states lacerations on Greene’s head were “inconsistent with motor vehicle collision injury” and were “most consistent with multiple impact sites from a blunt object.”
A sternal fracture and cuts on Greene’s aorta and liver were noted in the autopsy report. “Whether this injury is due to trauma from the motor vehicle collision, subsequent struggle, or is resuscitative in nature cannot be stated with certainty,” the report reads.
The Louisiana district attorney with jurisdiction over the area where Greene died said in April he plans to convene a special grand jury and pursue criminal charges against the troopers involved in his death.
A committee in the Louisiana House of Representatives is also investigating.
The Greene case wasn’t the only recent investigation involving state police and a Black driver to grab headlines. In September 2021, the Justice Department announced an indictment against a former Louisiana State Police officer for allegedly using excessive force with a flashlight against Black motorist Aaron Bowman.
Justice Department investigation is ‘monumental step,’ attorneys for Greene’s family say
Three lawyers for Greene’s family released a statement Thursday saying the federal civil investigation into the state police “is a monumental step towards true systematic shift that will affect all law enforcement agencies throughout the state of Louisiana.”
“We have remained steadfast that an independent investigation into LSP is the only way to achieve real change. Now we have that. We would not be here if it were not for the brave families and victims who spoke up when few would listen,” attorneys Lee Merritt, Ron Haley and Mark McGuire said.
An attorney for Bowman, Donecia Banks-Miley, said Bowman was relieved and “glad to hear that the DOJ finally sees the need to take action.”
“We have been requesting this investigation for over a year now and are hopeful that this investigation will bring justice to victims such as he, Ronald Greene and so many more who have been affected. We hope that this investigation continues to shed light on the persistent patterns of misconduct and excessive force specifically against African Americans,” Banks-Miley said Thursday.
CNN’s Alta Spells and Jade Gordon contributed to this report.