A year after the U.S. Justice Department announced the agency had launched civil investigations into the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office and Ville Platte Police Department, the government remains tight-lipped about how the probes are moving forward and local officials say they don’t know if they’re nearing conclusion.
In its two public communications on the matters — an April 2015 press release and a public meeting in late September led by two federal attorneys and a paralegal — the Justice Department said the focus is on whether either agency “use ‘investigative holds’ to detain individuals without proper cause.”
But a DOJ spokeswoman recently declined to further delineate the extent of the investigation into the law enforcement agencies’ practices.
“The department’s investigations are ongoing. As they are ongoing matters, the department declines to comment further,” Dena Iverson, a department public affairs specialist, wrote in an email.
Maj. Jeremy Mitchell, a spokesperson for the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office, said federal investigators conducted several interviews with Sheriff’s Office employees last fall, but he said the agency has since received no communications from the government.
“We’re just as in the dark as you are,” Mitchell said.
The dozens of about 150 Evangeline Parish residents who aired grievances at the Justice Department meeting in September complained of disparate and improper treatment by law enforcement.
Arthur Sampson, a Ville Platte native and local NAACP leader, worked with the Justice Department in coordinating the meeting. He said he’s long fielded complaints from area residents on what they feel are unjust law enforcement practices that begin with police contact and extend into the judicial system.
“They’ve got no income. They get that court-appointed lawyer. They take the plea bargain cause they’re scared. They’re on probation, so they take the charge. ‘Cause they got a rock — a joint. Other places, you pay a fine,” Sampson said in an interview.
Residents also have complained of fines owed for not following city ordinances enacted over the last few years that restrict people’s movements after dark.
One ordinance enacted by the City Council in 2010 lodges a $200 fine and/or up to 30 days in jail against those who don’t wear reflective gear while walking around at night.
Another ordinance, which has since been revoked, proved more controversial.
In response to a string of burglaries, the city in 2011 enacted a “walking curfew” that made it illegal to travel by foot from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on weekends. For the eight months the curfew was in place, violators faced another $200 fine and/or up to 30 days in jail.
Sampson joined the American Civil Liberties Union in fighting the ordinance by filing a lawsuit, which led the city to end the curfew after eight months in place. It also led to a federal consent decree in 2013 dictating that any further curfews would “be the least restrictive measure necessary to achieve a compelling need” for such a measure.
Sampson and the ACLU argued the ordinance, which still allowed for vehicular traffic during those time-frames, unfairly targeted the city’s low-income residents.
Evangeline Parish had a population of about 34,000 in the 2010 U.S. census — a number that dropped by about 1,000 over the decade prior — with a makeup of about 70 percent white and about 28 percent black. About 24 percent of residents live in poverty, and the per capita income is about $18,500.
Zoom into the city limits of Ville Platte, where about 7,300 people reside — another count that’s dropped by at least 1,000 — and the poverty rate balloons to about 41 percent with a per capita income of right under $15,000. Only about 40 percent of residents own their homes in Ville Platte, compared to 66 percent parishwide.
And the racial makeup flips when inside the city. About 64 percent of Ville Platte residents are black, compared to about 34 percent who are white.
“Most people arrested are low-income individuals, and it’s mostly African-Americans they’re doing it to,” Sampson said.
Ville Platte Police Chief Neal Lartigue did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
And Mitchell, the Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, suggested the agency corrected any issues it had with illegal detainments before the Justice Department announced its probe, but he declined to elaborate further on changes made while the federal investigation is ongoing.
In recent years, the Justice Department has stepped up various kinds of probes of local law enforcement agencies the federal government has accused of civil rights violations — including several criminal investigations in the Acadiana area.
A federal judge in January sentenced former Mamou Police Chief Robert McGee to one year in prison for using a stun gun on a nonviolent detainee locked up in the Evangeline Parish town’s jail.
The Justice Department has also honed in on the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, where Sheriff Louis Ackal and one of his top officials, Gerald Savoy, face criminal charges — with the government suggesting more are pending — in a sweeping investigation into excessive force complaints at the parish jail that have already led to the guilty pleas of nine of Ackal’s deputies. Ackal and Savoy have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The Evangeline Parish probe isn’t a criminal investigation, but a civil look at the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office and Ville Platte Police Department’s “patterns and practices,” essentially whether officers routinely violate citizens’ civil rights. These kind of probes can result in lawsuits launched by the federal government or consent decrees that require law enforcement agencies to make changes. Mike Songer, an attorney with the Justice Department’s civil rights division, explained at the September meeting in Ville Platte that his agency can force police department reforms through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act .
Responding to multiple questions about whether officers could be held criminally liable in the investigation, Songer said at the time the department’s findings would determine whether or not criminal charges are warranted.
But in other places in Louisiana, these civil probes — and any subsequent reforms — have taken years.
For example, the Justice Department launched an investigation into the Orleans Parish Prison in 2008 and issued two reports about unsafe jail conditions. But the agency did not aggressively move forward until after a private non-profit law firm in 2012 filed a lawsuit against the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, eventually working out a consent decree with the agency. Still, despite oversight by a federal judge, the Justice Department has complained the pace of reform is too slow, recently urging that a receiver take over control of the jail.
A similar consent decree governing the New Orleans Police Department’s operations has also been slow moving, although federal monitors have more praise for progress made within that agency.
Like the Sheriff’s Office, others within the criminal justice system in Evangeline Parish said they aren’t sure where the Justice Department probe is focused. Thirteenth Judicial District Judge Chuck West, one of two judges based in Ville Platte who began their terms in January 2014, said no investigators conducted interviews within the district court system and said he knows little else about the investigation’s status. He also suggested the issues under investigation were happening prior to his election.
“I think most of this was before my time,” West said.
Like the residents who voiced their complaints at the September meeting, Sampson, the NAACP leader, said he hopes the federal intervention will present an opportunity for local law enforcement reforms and hold those perpetrating the acts responsible.
“They should be held accountable. If they violated some laws or anything, they should be held accountable,” Sampson said. “If I violated the law, I’m sure some charges would be filed against me.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or call her at (337) 534-0825.