VILLE PLATTE — About 150 people gathered in the gymnasium at St. John Baptist Church on Monday to air grievances about their local law enforcement agencies, both of which are under federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Providing anecdotal evidence to two attorneys and a paralegal from the federal department, Ville Platte residents told tales of improper treatment by local law enforcement, with several people arguing the problem extends beyond law enforcement alone.
“It starts with the Sheriff’s Office and the Police Department, but it ends with the justice system,” Ville Platte resident Rufus Searile said.
Residents claiming injustice, favoritism and crooked behavior among law enforcement spoke to rounds of applause for about 45 minutes, at one point questioning whether criminal charges could be filed if the injustices were founded.
Michael Songer, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said any relevant criminal information will be forwarded to the FBI. But the investigation at present is focused on civil violations, he said.
“Our focus is to identify whether constitutional rights are being violated in Ville Platte, and if they are, putting systems in place to stop that in the future,” Songer said.
Roy Richard, an Evangeline Parish attorney, said the investigation should extend beyond the two law enforcement agencies. He spoke of cases he’s worked where judges allegedly detain people on high bonds without law enforcement investigators providing probable cause to do so.
“To me, constitutional rights are being violated all the way through,” Richard said.
Songer ended the discussion from the residents after about 45 minutes, instead encouraging them to fill out forms detailing their allegations.
Federal investigators this week began meeting with officials from both the Ville Platte Police Department and Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office in the case, which will strictly focus on whether people are being illegally detained without probable cause, Songer said.
The Justice Department’s findings will ultimately be compiled into a public report.
“If we do find there are patterns of constitutional violations here in Ville Platte, the next step is to work with the city and the parish to fix whatever problems there are,” as has happened in the past in New Orleans and in Ferguson, Missouri, Songer told the crowd.
“We want to move as quickly as we possibly can, but we also want to be thorough and fair … before we make our conclusions,” Songer said.
The Justice Department in April announced the investigation into both agencies, and Monday’s meeting marks the first public gathering for community input and the first time representatives have spoken in public on the claims.
Investigators set up a telephone hotline and email account for people to provide information at (855) 258-1434 or at Community.VillePlatte@usdoj.gov.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.