Tension Between Baton Rouge Residents and Police Predates Alton Sterling's Death

Sterling, 37, was killed early Tuesday by police, sparking protests.

ByABC News
July 6, 2016, 5:12 PM

— -- The relationship between the Baton Rouge community and the city's police force was tense long before the killing of Alton Sterling, according to individuals who spoke with ABC News.

Sterling, 37, was killed early Tuesday in a shooting that was captured on cellphone video. In the video, two officers appear to struggle with Sterling and slam him to the ground. One man seems to yell "gun." Then at least two shots are fired while the officers are close to Sterling.

Protests broke out on the streets of the city after the video in question emerged online.

The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Alton's death, but Kearney Loughlin, a New Orleans-based attorney who handles civil litigation cases in Baton Rouge, told ABC News by phone that the city has a history of tension between residents and police that he said predates Sterling's death.

"There are two classes in Baton Rouge," Loughlin said. "The police and everyone else."

Loughlin recently represented Brett Percle, a 24-year-old man, who, in 2013, was allegedly abused by police during a drug raid that never resulted in charges against him. Percle, according to Loughlin, was lying face down on the ground when Officer Robert Moruzzi allegedly "stomped on the back of his head," knocking out his teeth. Loughlin said that Percle was with his friends at the time of the raid and that they served as witnesses in the civil litigation trial against the City of Baton Rouge, Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., Officer Jason Acree and Moruzzi, in which Percle was awarded $25,000 dollars to cover medical, dental and mental health expenses for treatment following the alleged beating.

Loughlin said that his client tried to lodge a complaint with the Baton Rouge Police Department against the officers who conducted the raid, but that his attempts "went nowhere," which forced him to take his case to trial. The case was not appealed and the defendants do not plan to, according to Loughlin.

The Advocate, a Louisiana newspaper, reported that at the time of the verdict that police spokesperson Lt. Jonathan Dunnam said, “We feel that our officers acted within the bounds of the law.”

"The Baton Rouge Police have a reputation of being dismissive of the public," Loughlin said. "And that causes mistrust."

"The black population has it even worse," he added. Percle, he said, was white.

In April, a Baton Rouge sergeant was placed on leave after a video appeared online that allegedly showed him beating a black 16-year-old boy during an Earth Day gathering in the city, according to The Advocate.

The sergeant was still on leave as of May, according to The Advocate. The current status of the internal investigation is not known.

A request for comment from ABC News to the Baton Rouge Police Department on the Percle case and the allegations of longstanding tension between the community and the city's police force was not immediately returned.

Pastor Raymond Jetson, of the Star Hill Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, which he said has a majority black congregation, told ABC News that the Earth Day incident left a furor in the community that is "still lingering."

He said that what is happening in Baton Rouge between residents and police is reflective of a myriad of different issues that are being seen "across the country" between police and the men and women they serve. He said that "African Americans, most notably African-American males" are at the center of these conflicts.

"It doesn't mean that every police officer is horrific," he said. "But there have been negative encounters."

Sharon Weston Broome, a Democratic former member of the Louisiana State Senate for District 15 and the first black woman to hold that position, is currently running for mayor of Baton Rouge. A resident of the city for "nearly 40 years," she has been a long-time advocate for body cameras as a way of building greater trust between Baton Rouge residents and police.

After the video of the Earth Day incident surfaced online, she wrote an open letter supporting the use of body cameras in response to the incident.

"What has happened has impacted our entire community," Broome told ABC News today, calling Sterling's death a "tragedy." "I hope that this will serve as a catalyst to build better greater trust between residents and the police."

She called Baton Rouge a "generous city" and said that her support of body cameras was an effort to get out in front of what has become a "nationwide issue."

"We all look at the news, we see what is happening," she said.

There is video of the Sterling encounter from police body cameras, which became dislodged during the incident but continued recording, as well as video from the patrol car camera and the store, officials said today.

Broome maintains that body cameras are an effective tool in building trust with law enforcement "if they are operative,” she said, referencing the devices becoming dislodged.

She acknowledged the ongoing protests against police violence in her city and said that she hoped that they would be "peaceful and productive."

"We need changes," she said. "We don't need violence."

"This incident is only one incident in many," NAACP chapter president Michael McClanahan told reporters earlier today of Sterling’s death. “What we’re going to do is root out the 1 percent of bad police officers that go around being the judge, the jury and execution of innocent people, period -- but more specifically, innocent black lives.”

McClanahan asked for the chief of police to resign in the wake of the killing.

But Baton Rouge Police Chief Dabadie said he is not resigning. He called Sterling's death a "horrible tragedy" and described the incident as an "altercation" that "resulted in the loss of his life."

He also told reporters that there would be a “thorough, just, transparent and independent investigation” of the incident, adding that those calling for his resignation are “acting off of emotion.”

Dabadie urged protesters to remain peaceful. "We ask for your voluntary compliance to our laws and peaceful assembly with any gatherings that may be planned. We encourage you to plan and protest.... We don't have issues with that," he said.

He continued: "We just ask that you do it peacefully and that no one gets hurt or injured. Despite the events that we are here for this morning, I want to remind everyone that we have hundreds of officers that risk their lives every single day and have a very difficult job and we will continue to work in this community and for this community throughout this event."