BR officer disciplined for racial slur

Advocate Staff File Photo by Travis Spradling -- Det. John Colter in a 2007 photo.
Advocate Staff File Photo by Travis Spradling -- Det. John Colter in a 2007 photo.

A veteran Baton Rouge police detective who used a racial slur to describe a homicide victim was suspended from duty recently after an internal affairs investigation determined he violated department policy.

The detective, John L. Colter, complained at the scene of a fatal shooting in January that, “It’s my wife’s birthday and I am standing here over a dead nigger,” according to records released Tuesday by the Baton Rouge Police Department.

Colter, who is white, made the remarks among a group of officers that included a black detective.

Provisional Police Chief Carl Dabadie, in May, suspended Colter without pay for 20 days as a result of the incident and ordered that he attend a diversity training course.

“Your actions could have potentially devastating consequences for this department in our bid to win the hearts and minds of those we have solemnly sworn to protect and serve,” Dabadie wrote in Colter’s letter of suspension.

He added, “This type of unacceptable behavior relegates anyone from the ranks of quintessential professional to that of an insensitive, arrogant and callous egotist that has neither empathy nor feeling towards others.”

Dabadie declined through a spokesman to discuss the case after the records were released Tuesday in response to a Public Records Act request because Colter remained hospitalized with serious injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash last week in Livingston Parish.

The spokesman, Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, said Colter sustained “significant brain injury” but is expected to survive.

Colter’s use of a racial slur came to light in February during former Police Chief Dewayne White’s pre-termination hearing. Without naming Colter, White said he had sought unsuccessfully to transfer the detective shortly after the incident, claiming the case highlighted Mayor-President Kip Holden’s tendency to micromanage him.

“Not only were the officer’s comments and conduct deplorable,” White said during the packed hearing in the Metro Council chambers, “but they could potentially cause to be called into question all of his prior investigations involving African-American victims.”

White, who was fired for insubordination and violating department policy, had sought during his tenure to improve race relations with the community, a task compounded by the department’s historical struggle in recruiting and retaining black officers.

While the Police Department has made progress toward diversifying, it remains overwhelmingly white in a majority black city and is still subject to a decades-old federal consent decree that seeks to prevent discriminatory hiring practices.

The incident that led to Colter’s suspension occurred on the morning of Jan. 5, when Colter was called out to investigate the killing of 43-year-old Keith Matthews, a West Feliciana Parish man found fatally shot in a vehicle parked in front of a vacant home on Erie Street.

Officers at the scene recalled Colter taking out his smartphone at some point and appearing to photograph the corpse, suggesting he should send a picture to his wife to account for his middle-of-the-night absence on her birthday.

Colter denied snapping any photographs, telling internal affairs officers later that he had been using the flashlight application on his cellphone to see inside the vehicle where the victim was seated.

But Colter readily admitted using the racial slur, adding he quickly apologized to his fellow officers, who had been huddling in strategy over how to approach the “whodunit, head-scratcher” of a slaying.

Colter told internal affairs officers that the racial epithet was a “slip of the tongue” and that he shouldn’t have said it.

“I meant to say dead Negro,” he explained.

In his interview with internal affairs, Colter apologized if his remarks “came off as racist,” but noted he and other homicide detectives often make “very dark, inappropriate jokes” in coping with the gory scenes they encounter in their work.

“We were kind of making fun of the fact that the guy got shot with his pants down around his ankles basically,” Colter told investigators. “There had been other jokes about that prior to my comment.”

Police have said they believe Matthews was in the company of a prostitute at the time of his death.

Police records revealed conflicting accounts of the immediate reaction to Colter’s use of the racial slur. Dabadie, in the letter of suspension, mentioned that a lieutenant who overheard the remarks admonished Colter and told him he “did not want to hear that again.”

But another detective — whose name, like other police officials other than Colter, was blacked out of the records that were released — told investigators the officers “kind of brushed it off” after Colter apologized “and that was the end of it.”

Colter told officials that he prided himself on professionalism and said that his use of the racial epithet marked “the first time it has come out of my mouth in relation to my police duties” of 25 years.

“Truth be told, I probably shouldn’t have been making that comment to begin with,” he said. “We had been out there for about two hours and it was a bad scene.”

Dabadie noted in the letter of suspension that Colter, as a supervisor, was held to a “slightly higher standard” than that of an officer.

“When you have lapses in judgment as you did on the day in question, it can only serve to weaken the trust and respect you have earned over the years by those this department has entrusted to your supervision,” Dabadie wrote.