The fight started the way many fights do, with harsh – if a bit comical – words exchanged between men hopped up on alcohol and testosterone. On the early morning of March 9, 2003, in the parking lot of the now-shuttered Southdowns Lounge just after last call, those words had to do with someone’s “momma.”
One man had suggested that the occupation of another man’s mother involved exchanging money for sexual services.
The patron who doled out the insult now found himself being pummeled by multiple men who beat, punched, kicked and stomped him, according to police reports and witnesses. Blood poured down his face. He curled into a fetal position in a futile attempt to protect himself.
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
A woman ran to the bar window and banged on it to alert people inside. The bouncer, patrons and bar employees dashed outside to stop the one-sided thrashing. The bouncer advised the peacekeepers to “huddle up and walk into” the melee as a way “to defuse things.”
A regular patron approached the scrum and told the attackers to stop, warning that the police had been called.
One of the brawlers grabbed the regular and threw him to the ground.
Then he glared at the others who might be thinking of intervening and said: “We are the f***ing police.”
A history of abuse and misconduct within the Baton Rouge Police Department was very much an issue for Murphy Paul when he became chief in early 2018. He arrived with a mandate from Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome who had been elected on a platform promising sweeping reforms after the shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016.
The department had a reputation for condoning its officers’ bad behavior and getting them back out on the street with little or no disciplinary consequences.
Paul’s plan for changing that culture began with cleaning up Internal Affairs, the office responsible for investigating officers accused of wrongdoing and holding violators accountable.
One of the first things Paul did was make it easier for the public to file complaints online, instead of going through the onerous process of having to fill out paperwork in person, sometimes in view of the very officers who were subjects of the grievance. He changed policy so that internal investigations no longer ended if the officer being investigated left the department.
The department also now investigates incidents in which a complaint is brought to its attention by third parties not involved in the incident. For instance, if a video showing an officer using force is circulating on social media the department will not wait for the victim to come forward and file an internal affairs complaint; it will open one itself.
The new chief’s focus on policy and accountability was not universally accepted by the rank and file, especially as reprimands, punishments and firings became more common. According to data published by the department, 33.5% of internal investigations were sustained on average between 2009 and 2017. That number increased to 41% during Paul’s tenure.
Some officers bristled at the new rules and grumbled.
Some left in protest. But some decided to stay and fight.
This defiant group formed what came to be commonly known by all sides as “The Resistance.” It was made up of a mix of former BRPD chiefs, influential members of several law enforcement unions, retired law enforcement from the region as well as officers still on the job.
When he first took over the department, there were even some administrators from within Paul’s inner circle who sympathized with The Resistance. Law enforcement sources said Paul had to figure out who to trust when he first took the office and who he could not.
The forces in opposition – internal and external – remained constant during Paul’s five-and-a-half-year tenure, launching public attacks, forcing bureaucratic delays and even initiating some rear-guard actions.
But that didn’t sway Paul. The investigations into complaints of bad behavior continued unabated, and the discipline missing under previous administrations continued to be handed down.
Thorn in the side
The firings of Officer Blane Salamoni, who fatally shot Alton Sterling, and Officer Yuseff Hamadeh, who was responsible for two shootings — one fatal, one not — captured national headlines. But there were lower-profile cases that were equally contentious.
It got to the point where even minor discipline would lead to marathon battles at the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, which adjudicates firings and disciplinary cases within the police and fire departments.
There were a number of prominent names associated with The Resistance. They included leaders and members from the police unions – the Baton Rouge and statewide chapters of the International Union of Police Associations – like Siya Creel, Don Stone and Chris Stewart.
Greg Phares, who was BRPD chief in the ‘90s, and his successor, Pat Englade, denounced Paul as a politician in over his head.
Carl Dabadie, Paul’s immediate predecessor, also made a thinly veiled criticism of Paul’s agenda on his way out of the office.
“My hope is that the men and women of the Baton Rouge Police Department will be allowed to perform their jobs according to state law, without prejudice, and that politics will not supersede safety,” said Dabadie, who could be in line to become the next sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish.
And there was Kiran Chawla, a longtime reporter for a local news station who became entangled in feuds with Paul and his department. She went on to launch a website, Unfiltered with Kiran, which became a major platform for Paul’s critics.
Dabadie, Phares and the local and state chapters of the International Union of Police Associations did not reply to multiple requests for comment. The national chapter of I.U.P.A. said they do not respond to questions from the press.
Eugene Collins, the former president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge chapter, has been in the middle of the fight for police accountability for the duration of Paul’s regime. He said The Resistance longs to bring the BRPD back to what they think are its “glory days.”
“When they would stomp on people out in the streets, when they could kill people in living rooms and get away with it,” he said. “That’s the good old days for them. They want to ‘make BRPD great again.’ You know, to them. But the community hated that BRPD.”
Over time, there was one member of the department more than any other who came to represent the face of the opposition: John Dauthier.
Dauthier clashed with Paul in a series of Internal Affairs investigations and marathon civil service board battles. To his supporters, Dauthier is a martyr who had to resign after what he characterized as a series of politically motivated internal affairs investigations. To Paul and his camp, he is a representative of the old way of doing business and of the culture that Paul spent his tenure trying to change.
The battles between the two men exemplify a bigger war over police reform in the wake of the deaths of Sterling, George Floyd and others. An initial momentum for change has slowed in the face of those who argue the reform movement is going too far, making it harder and more dangerous for officers to do their jobs.
Dauthier was a self-described “thorn in the side” of Paul’s administration, and a vocal critic of what he thought Paul was doing to the BRPD. His public response when he heard about Paul’s resignation was celebratory.
“This is a great day for this struggling agency,” Dauthier said in a story about Paul’s retirement published on Unfiltered with Kiran. “Chief Paul instilled a culture of fear to enforce compliance with his misguided agenda, which speaks for itself.
“If you can provide me with a single metric of success that the BRPD can currently boast, better than when this man arrived, I’ll hold my breath waiting to hear it. Chief Paul’s departure hopefully marks the end of the decay of this deteriorating department.”
To Dauthier, the BRPD was operating just as it should have been until the new chief came in.
Paul had transformed the Internal Affairs process into a weapon to go after his enemies, Dauthier said. And there was no enemy with a bigger target on his back, he said, than himself.
“And you’ve got all these guys who want to fight back and every one of them are scared of being the next John Dauthier,” he said during an interview over king cake and iced tea in his kitchen in February.
Paul, the second Black chief in BRPD history, was using his position of power to try to right historical racial wrongs, Dauthier said. Under the guise of reform, Paul was pursuing an agenda of targeting his white critics within the department and using the Internal Affairs process to get rid of them, he said.
“He brought what could only be described as a very partial doctrine of enforcing rules of the BRPD – it was absolutely based upon race,” he said. “It became very clear we were investigating some people and not investigating others – and it was blatant.”
Paul has repeatedly said over the course of his tenure that the numbers around discipline don’t bear that out. He dismisses it as an absurd claim.
The BRPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Dauthier started his career in law enforcement as a reserve officer in Hammond, a town of about 20,000 people 45 miles east of Baton Rouge and 45 miles northwest of New Orleans. After nine years there, he became a full-time officer with the BRPD.
He started in uniform patrol and had a number of positions, including in the Homicide Division where he investigated high-profile cases and cracked some cold ones.
After Dabadie became chief – the person in charge during the Sterling shooting – he recruited Dauthier to join Internal Affairs.
“I went there and started working in Internal Affairs, having a fantastic time,” Dauthier said. “I don’t want to use the word ‘friendly’ to officers – what we were, at least in the course of my career, we were the most fair division.
“If you did wrong we spanked you. If you had a nonsense complaint we worked to clear you,” he said. “We weren’t there to make friends but we weren’t there to screw people over either. It was fantastic under that regime.”
All that changed, he said, when Paul took over.
“They screw with you,” he said of Paul’s discipline and revamped Internal Affairs process. “This is how you control otherwise fearless individuals who chase bad guys into houses at 3 o’clock in the morning with guns. This is how you control these people.”
Dauthier said he left Internal Affairs in protest.
Before he retired in June of last year Dauthier had been the subject of five Internal Affairs investigations under Paul’s administration, including allegations that he had failed to properly review body-worn camera footage from an officer accused of using excessive force, the kind of investigative failure that critics say was too common in the history of BRPD.
Dauthier won an election in April 2022 to be a member of the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board after the previous officer representative, Robert Moruzzi, who publicly said he was frustrated at the long, protracted hearings, stepped down. Sources familiar with the board said he was tired of the scrutiny that came with the public role. Moruzzi did not respond to requests for comment.
While serving on the board, Dauthier was investigated for allegedly using police equipment to dig into the criminal history of another board member who was not voting in favor of police officers.
After Dauthier’s retirement in June 2022, Paul announced that the former officer was under investigation for a plot to try to set up Paul for a drunk driving arrest at a popular cigar bar called Churchill’s.
In each incident, Dauthier denied all the charges and said he was acting within both BRPD policy and the law. And, he added, the BRPD was already “reformed” under the previous chief. The department had already turned the corner on its dubious past, he said.
“We were headed in the right direction, I’m telling you. We still had bad apples but we weren’t putting up with it. When people needed to get thumped they were getting thumped. Dab was a good guy,” he said, referring to Dabadie.
But there was still more to the Southdowns Lounge fight that had not become public. And once again, Dauthier was in the middle of it.