In 2016, Fate Ferrell stood at the microphone in front of the Bogalusa, Louisiana, city council on the eve of the appointment of a new police chief.
The room was boiling over as residents urged council members not to confirm a longtime officer named Kendall Bullen to the top job. One of the primary grievances: that Bullen had allegedly committed an act of police brutality about 15 years earlier by striking a Black man, Johnny Lee Johnson, in the head with a flashlight. At the time, Bullen denied the allegation, and local media reports suggested it was not substantiated.
Others took to the mic to protest the appointment as the product of a “good ol’ boy system” within the police department.
“If you go ahead and elect Kendall Bullen… you are going to be in big trouble,” Ferrell declared, as first reported by local outlet the Daily News. “And you can believe me or not. But you will be in big trouble.”
Bullen had his backers, too.
“We’re publicly executing a man right here who’s not been given a chance,” Council Member Scott Ard said in defense of Bullen at the time.
Skeptics’ pleas appeared to largely go unheard, and Bullen got the job—and remains chief to this day. But six years later, seismic political change has come to town—and with it, signs of a police reckoning.
In a city that was the epicenter of both historic and contemporary civil rights battles and once nicknamed “Klantown U.S.A.,” Bogalusans shocked that same old-boy culture in November when they elected a 23-year-old Black Gen Z mayor named Tyrin Truong.
Now, the release of horrific video of events preceding the death of Eric Nelson, a Black man, after his arrest by the Bogalusa Police Department last year has launched a new fight against Chief Bullen—and rekindled debate about Bullen’s own alleged police brutality decades ago.
“His nomination was never right from the start. That’s the angle that I’m going to continue to take because, at the end of the day, we’re fighting enough stuff,” Mayor-Elect Truong told The Daily Beast. He added that one 15-year-old door-knocker in his campaign had been shot and killed at a birthday party, a testament to the local gun violence problem.
Multiple attempts to reach Chief Bullen—who a police spokesperson said has been out of the office for some weeks after having back surgery—for comment for this story were unsuccessful.
Truong thinks the time is ripe to bring police accountability to Bogalusa.
“If we have all of this going on in our community, we don’t need other stuff on top of it, like what we saw in the video,” he said.
“If any of these young Black men or women would like to have a job here, they’re more than welcome to come talk to me myself. ”
— Major Troy Tervalon
In November, surveillance camera video surfaced showing what Nelson had endured following an arrest in 2021 and before his eventual death. Almost exactly one year ago, he was arrested following a car accident for outstanding warrants on drug charges.
According to his family’s lawsuit, officers told EMTs that Nelson had fallen while walking to the station that day. But the video appeared to show cops tugging Nelson’s limp body from the police car onto the pavement, then dragging the 28-year-old across the police department parking lot.
“By the time that Nelson is moved near the building, no fewer than six Bogalusa PD officers are on the scene,” read the family’s lawsuit against the city, which accused the police department of violating Nelson’s civil rights, and of covering up the deed. “And none are rendering aid. For five critical minutes, the Bogalusa police officers do nothing as Nelson lays dying on the pavement.” (Chief Bullen was not alleged to be among those present for the incident.)
Raymond Tate, an ex-cop now in charge of the local NAACP who makes no secret of his personal beef with Chief Bullen, coached Nelson in football. He told The Daily Beast that the young man had been working to turn his life around.
“He was a great athlete. He’s real smart. And even when he was grown —you know, he’s grown and has kid— … he used to call me up, I’d go out and talk with him, and you know he was a real positive person.”
Mayor-elect Truong, who graduated last year from Washington University and was student body president, said that his Facebook post after the election demanding Bullen step down wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision.
And he claimed he had no anti-police agenda, and that he hopes for an effective police force that will be more connected with the community it serves.
“The whole reason I ran was because of gun violence,” he said.
“A lot of a lot of people have told me, you know, don’t, don’t pick a fight with the police chief coming in,” Truong, who earned 56 percent of the votes in this year’s mayoral election, later added. “But you know, I ran on being genuine, I ran on being transparent.”
Bogalusa, population roughly 11,000, has experienced intense heartache from economic decline and gun violence in 2022. Like in many rural towns, the homicide rate has lept markedly since the pandemic, and over a third of Bogalusans live below the poverty line.
As of October, there were 8 murders in Bogalusa so far in 2022, and over 60 shootings tallied, according to NOLA.com. At the time, that put Bogalusa’s murder rate roughly equal to that of New Orleans, according to the outlet.
Truong claims that policing in the city has just not been equitable—that Bogalusans have complained to him of slow response times and shabby investigations into violent crimes while police posted up at private events for rich business owners. He also leveled the charge that although Chief Bullen has been his focus, there is a deeper culture issue that needs to be changed to “revamp their public reputation.”
“A lot of Black men have reached out saying if you win and if you can make changes over there, then a lot of us will be willing to come and be police officers,” Truong told The Beast. “Even some of the retired officers want to return. But again, Kendall’s leadership that just has not been practical for Black men.”
Major Troy Tervalon of the Bogalusa Police Department said that Truong’s statements were patently untrue. Among other things, he cited civil service exams that govern promotions, and extensive outreach to get more Black officers on the force.
Tervalon stated he had never heard such complaints from folks in the community, and he welcomes any Black Bogalusans to join a department they said they are working hard to staff up.
“I would think that to be 100% incorrect. If any of these young Black men or women would like to have a job here, they’re more than welcome to come talk to me myself and I will get through the process of trying to get them hired,” Tervalon told The Daily Beast.
In a town that is 51 percent white and 45 percent Black, the police force of 33 only employs 4 Black officers, according to the department’s own count. Twenty-seven are white men.
This year, two people died in the city jail, according to Bogalusa Police, and one recent lawsuit was filed by a man who claims a BPD cop ran him over with a police vehicle on purpose during a foot-chase.
But it is a foot-chase from 21 years ago that was at the center of the firestorm around Bullen’s original nomination to be chief. And if a city council meeting this month in which Ferrell’s latest mention of it produced an eruption of anger is any indication, the furor hasn’t gone away.
The crux of the allegation is that in November 2001, Bullen took part in the arrest of Johnson, a man who was accused of rape and kidnapping, and beat him over the head with a flashlight.
Police told local outlets that Johnson had, on a previous occasion, smashed a wine bottle on an officer’s head, an allegation The Daily Beast could not independently confirm.
But everything from the date it took place to the alleged weapon to the punishment meted out after the 2001 incident has been shrouded in divergent accounts and competing allegations.
At the time, police claimed that Johnson, who died in 2015, fell and hurt himself when Bullen tackled him to the ground. His family did not buy that.
“How did my brother get a hole on top of his head from fall (sic)?” Johnson’s sister Emma Gatlin, who could not be reached for comment, wrote in a letter to Bogalusa’s Daily News in 2016.
Johnson filed a 2002 lawsuit that was initially vague about the alleged abuse, and later attributed it to the butt of a gun, rather than a flashlight. The suit, which named Bullen, was eventually settled, though it was unclear if the now-chief—who has claimed he was exonerated—was party to that settlement.
In 2016, the Daily News reported that the police department’s own paperwork told the story of Bullen bearhugging Johnson in order to subdue him, toppling him to the ground. The report said that Johnson hit his head on pavement during the fall. (The outlet cited the incident as having taken place on Sept. 1, 2001, but the events, location, and officers present in the local news account all appear to line up with the Nov. 1 incident in Johnson’s lawsuit.)
“The head injury sustained by Johnson was caused by being struck by Officer Bullen’s flashlight when Johnson was being arrested.”
— Independent investigation dated Dec. 27, 2001
A memo signed by then-mayor on Jan. 2, 2002 and obtained by the Daily News showed that Bullen received 30 days unpaid leave after the fact. The memo reportedly cited an outside probe into the investigation by a former FBI agent, Warren B. Jung II, who “concluded that you violated Municipal Civil Service rules and regulations in your arrest of subject Johnny Johnson.”
When asked about his suspension by the outlet, Bullen said it was over a mere paperwork error. And then-Mayor James M. McGehee was quoted at the time as saying that if an allegation of a beating had been substantiated, the punishment would have been firing, not 30 days leave.
“My suspension was simply for not doing my paperwork one night,” Bullen said. “I went home and I depended on someone else to do it…. I was definitely wrong for not doing it, but I just depended on someone else to do it and it didn’t get done and that’s the bottom line.”
But new documents obtained by The Daily Beast appear to show that Jung had submitted the results of his independent investigation just days before—on Dec. 27, 2001—and reached a very different conclusion.
“The head injury sustained by Johnson was caused by being struck by Officer Bullen’s flashlight when Johnson was being arrested,” read a copy of the report, credited to Jung II, referring to a Nov. 1, 2001 arrest. The document says that the only question to be resolved was “whether or not the injury inflicted by Bullen’s use of force was ‘accidental’ or ‘intentional.’”
“It is the opinion of the writer that Bullen intentionally struck Johnson with his flashlight,” the report continued, and recommended 30 days leave as punishment.
When asked by phone whether he could confirm the authenticity of the memo, Jung II told The Daily Beast, “I don’t know what this is,” and refused to discuss it further or receive it by email for review. As far back as 2016, he told the Daily News he could not recall the case in question.
Attorney Gerald J. Nielsen and former Mayor McGehee were the people who requested the report, according to the document.
Nielsen told The Daily Beast that he couldn’t remember the case, and refused to review a copy of the report.
Former Mayor McGehee said that he vaguely remembered the report, and that he gave a 30-day suspension based on Jung’s recommendations. Upon being provided a copy by The Daily Beast, he added, “After reviewing the attached documents, I stand by my previous decision that was based on the thorough investigation and recommendation of Attorney Warren Jung II.”
According to the report, the findings were based, among other things, on statements by other policemen at the scene and a taped statement of an EMT. Complicating matters further is that one of the key statements cited in the report in finding Bullen had engaged in misconduct came from a fellow officer who denied, to the local newspaper, ever having said so.
Major Tervalon of Bogalusa PD refused to comment on the report to The Daily Beast, citing lack of knowledge of the document.
“I had no part in that,” he said.
Truong, for his part, said that the road to ending Bullen’s reign as chief is more complicated than it might seem. In Bogalusa, police chiefs can be appointed, but not fired, at the whim of the mayor, due to civil service law.
That’s why he’s asking Bullen to step down now—and considering other ways to replace him. Truong said wants a police chief who will be “fair,” “trustworthy,” and that “every community can respect.”
“Somebody who’s, who’s open minded, somebody who’s willing to look at things from multiple perspectives, who understands and can, you know, admit to the troubled past of BPD, because it’s gonna take acknowledgment for us to move forward,” he told The Daily Beast. “I think that’s going to be the first step to let the community know, ‘We hear you, we see you, your claims have validity, but moving forward, we want to go in a different direction.’”