Baton Rouge police are acknowledging offensive photos featuring two white officers dressed in blackface as part of a “department-approved” undercover narcotics operation from 1993 aimed at fooling drug buyers in majority-Black neighborhoods.
The department’s then-police chief called the operation “very successful,” but current Police Chief Murphy Paul saw things much differently and offered an apology.
“Blackface photographs are inappropriate and offensive,” Paul said 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.”
Media outlet The Rouge Collection leaked the Baton Rouge PD yearbook photo showing the officers, Crimestoppers coordinator Lt. Don Stone and now-retired police Capt. Frankie Caruso, posed with their faces painted black, wearing denim, hoodies and dark sunglasses. They captioned the photo “Soul Brothers.”
According to a 1993 article by The Advocate, Stone and Caruso were part of an undercover narcotics operation, along with five other Baton Rouge PD officers. At the time, the officers chopped up welder’s chalk to mimic crack cocaine, then would go into “drug hot spots” in hopes of nabbing a buyer.
Most of these “hot spots” were in predominately Black communities, however.
The operation resulted in 10 arrests of people attempting to buy the counterfeit drugs from the “Black” officers, according to the outlet. The article stated that one man in his 50s even offered to pay for the phony drugs using food stamps.
Additionally, The Advocate explained that Stone and Caruso were chosen to pose as Black officers because the two African-American narcotics officers on the force at that time were well known and easily recognized in the community.
In his statement Monday, Paul said the department doesn’t allow officers to wear blackface “in an official capacity” under any circumstances, but added that “administratively, [it] can’t apply existing policies to conduct that happened before the policies were in place.
“Polices that were existing at the time of the behavior would have to be applied,” he said. “Today … we have policies in place to prevent our officers from in engaging in this type of behavior both on and off duty.”
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broom also weighed in on the incident and was no-holds-barred in condemning the actions of the police officers.
“While this may have been department-approved 25 years ago, that doesn’t make it right,” Broom said. “Blackface is more than just a costume. It invokes a painful history in this country and it is not appropriate in any situation.”
Caruso and then-Chief Greg Phares defended their actions to The Advocate on Monday, insisting the operation was in no way racial. Caruso likened his actions to other undercover work he’s done throughout his career, which included posing as a gay man, a prostitute and a biker.
“You got to dress the part,” Caruso told the newspaper. “It wasn’t done offensively.”
The Advocate noted that neither Caruso or Phares would describe the makeup as blackface.
“I have no problem whatsoever with that these officers did,” said Phares, now chief deputy of 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.”
The scandal comes as several prominent Virginia politicians, including Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, face intense scrutiny over decades-old photos of them in blackface. A state representative in Florida has also refused to resign over a yearbook photo of him dressed as his African-American classmate.