They used chopped-up chalk as fake crack cocaine and cloaked their white skin in blackface makeup.
Then the two undercover narcotics officers hit the streets of Baton Rouge, hoping to fool interested drug buyers in the predominantly black neighborhood into believing they were dealers.
“Not only do they not know we’re cops — they don’t even know we’re white!” then-Detective Frankie Caruso told the Advocate newspaper in 1993, the year the undercover blackface operation took place.
Now, 26 years later, the Baton Rouge Police Department is apologizing for the tactics after a police yearbook photo of the two disguised cops surfaced, marking the latest blackface scandal to ensnare authority figures and the first this year involving undercover police. In the photo’s caption, the cops were called the “soul brothers.” One threw up apparent gang signs.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul confirmed in a statement Monday that the photo of the officers depicts a “department-approved operation” in February 1993. The photo was first published Saturday by the Rouge Collection, a local news site.
“Blackface photographs are inappropriate and offensive. They were inappropriate then and are inappropriate today,” said Paul, who is black. “The Baton Rouge Police Department would like to apologize to our citizens and to anyone who may have been offended by the photographs.”
Over the past month, blackface photos have brought down Florida’s secretary of state, and have embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D). Rampant displays of blackface have been recently rediscovered in university yearbooks dating back decades.
But the practice appears far less documented when it comes to official police investigations.
Among the only cases to hit the national radar came three years before the Baton Rouge case, when another undercover operation using blackface in Florida disturbed community members and was condemned as racist and inappropriate.
In 1990, roughly 250 outraged residents in Naples, Fla., wrote a letter calling for an investigation by the FBI and the state and U.S. attorneys general after Naples police officers went undercover in blackface to sell crack cocaine in a predominantly black neighborhood, the St. Petersburg Times reported then.
“The police seemed to be saying, ‘This is what a drug pusher would look like,' ” community activist Fran Haugabrook told the St. Petersburg Times. “In other words, ‘A drug pusher is black.’ It is offensive.”
A police captain told the paper that the backlash led the Naples department to abandon the blackface tactics, but that they didn’t feel they had done anything wrong. “Because the sales are made predominantly by blacks . . . there’s no way [detectives] could get out there and sell drugs standing on the corner looking the way they were," the captain said.
The department simply didn’t have enough black officers, the AP reported — only one on a force of 75.
The lack of diversity appeared to also be part of the problem in Baton Rouge in 1993, when officers gave similar reasoning for the ploy, according to the 1993 article in the Advocate.
The department’s two black narcotics officers were too “well-known” in the area, and so Caruso said his wife attempted to make him and his white partner, identified by the Advocate as Lt. Don Stone, look black.
In the photo, one wore denim on denim over a white hoodie, with his hood slipped over a white baseball cap and his fingers contorted into some apparent gang gesture. The other let the right strap of his denim overalls dangle from his shoulder and a yellow bandanna dangle from his pocket. Both wore sunglasses. Both looked perversely tan.
Once at the scene, according to the 1993 account, the officers attracted 10 buyers in less than an hour, issuing court summons instead of making arrests, because — at the height of the war on drugs — the local jail was full. When one woman drove up to the undercover officers, seeking crack, one of the officers yelled, “We got one!” as he held up her two $10 bills.
Another man in his 50s attempted to pay with food stamps.
“While this may have been department-approved 25 years ago, that does not make it right," East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said in a statement Monday, the Advocate reported. “Blackface is more than just a costume. It invokes a painful history in this country and it is not appropriate in any situation.”
Caruso confirmed to The Washington Post that he was in the picture as part of an undercover operation, but he was unavailable to talk further when reached Monday night. Stone, who still works for the department, could not be reached; nor could then-police chief Greg Phares.
Phares and Caruso both defended the tactics in an interview with the Advocate earlier Monday, saying they only intended to get drugs off the streets rather than offend black people with their disguises. Caruso, who told the Advocate he also wore a gold tooth as part of his costume, said that wearing the disguise was necessary for his undercover work, and that he had also dressed as a gay man, biker and prostitute while on the job. “You got to dress the part,” he said. “It wasn’t done offensively.”
Phares, now chief deputy at the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office in Clinton, La., said he had “no problem whatsoever with what 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 told the newspaper.
Paul, the current police chief in Baton Rouge, noted in his statement that the lieutenant who still works at the department, Stone, will not face discipline because the department can’t “apply existing policies to conduct that happened before the policies were in place.” But, he added, officers today would “never be allowed to wear blackface in an official capacity under any circumstance.”
“We have policies to prevent our officers from engaging in this type of behavior both on and off-duty," he said.
The police department’s issues with diversity are not confined to 1993.
The Baton Rouge Police Department has remained under federal oversight since 1980 because of that problem. The 1980 consent decree, which applied to dozens of Louisiana cities, was intended to monitor both hiring practices and promotions in the department, seeking to quash discrimination and increase the number of minorities and female officers within the ranks. Baton Rouge is one of the last cities in Louisiana still noncompliant with the consent decree nearly 40 years later, the Advocate reported.
Paul told the paper that when he took over Baton Rouge Police Department in January 2018, he made it a priority to change that noncompliance. Paul became chief in the aftermath of the 2016 death of Alton Sterling, a black man who was fatally shot by two white police officers with the department, further straining racial tensions. The Justice Department declined to bring charges against the officers involved.
correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Alton Sterling was unarmed.
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