A New Orleans congressman on Wednesday asked the Justice Department to launch a sweeping investigation of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, citing recent articles in The Advocate detailing allegations of abuse by deputies there.
“We can no longer allow the abusive culture that has permeated IPSO to go unchecked,” U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond said in a written statement. “The accounts of discrimination, abuse and even deaths occurring as a result of the actions of deputies clearly illustrate a pattern and practice that systematically violates the basic rights of citizens. It is imperative that the Department of Justice step in and correct this conduct before there is any more loss of life.”
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Ryan Turner said Sheriff Louis Ackal declined comment on Richmond’s call for an investigation.
In a three-page letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Richmond asks for a “full investigation into the IPSO to uncover what, if any, civil rights violations of the citizens of Iberia Parish and the inmates at the Iberia Parish jail have been subject to over the course of the last decade.”
Richmond’s letter references several incidents of alleged inmate abuse detailed in recent reports by The Advocate and a video filed into court records that shows an Iberia Parish corrections officer attacking a prone inmate with the help of a dog.
The articles also detailed payouts of more than $1 million to settle lawsuits filed against the Sheriff’s Office since Louis Ackal took the helm in 2008.
“When you see a number of instances and you see the amount of money that has been paid out, it raises an alarm,” Richmond said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Richmond spokesman Brandon Gassaway said the representative is asking for what’s known as a “pattern and practice” investigation, similar to wide-ranging probes completed by the Justice Department in New Orleans and, more recently, Ferguson, Missouri, and launched earlier this month in Baltimore.
“We are looking at the total scope and culture,” Gassaway said.
A spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley, whose jurisdiction includes Iberia Parish, said she had “no comment.”
The Sheriff’s Office already has been under increased scrutiny since the death last year of 22-year-old Victor White III in the back of a Sheriff’s Office cruiser, an incident that attracted national attention.
Iberia Parish Coroner Dr. Carl Ditch ruled that White died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right side of his chest while handcuffed, a finding that White’s family members and civil rights activists have questioned.
The Justice Department last fall launched a criminal investigation of the death.
In an unrelated case that prompted a separate federal criminal investigation, a former deputy pleaded guilty in March to a misdemeanor civil rights charge for using excessive force against a handcuffed man.
“Recent unrest in communities across the country have shed light on the fact that many people feel they have been unfairly targeted by police and forced to live their lives under the threat of an oppressive regime. The role our law enforcement officers fill is too important to the function of our society to allow this dynamic to go unchecked,” Richmond wrote in his letter to the Justice Department. “It is incumbent upon us all to step in and intervene for the people we serve whenever it appears that their rights have been abridged in any way.”
Unlike a criminal investigation, the “patterns and practice” investigations are civil, often resulting in court-supervised agreements that require specific changes in how law enforcement agencies operate. In Louisiana, the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division has launched this kind of probe into both the New Orleans Police Department and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail for the city.
Eventually, city leaders in New Orleans signed agreements with the feds that require massive overhauls. Since then, there have been tensions between the various agencies and the Justice Department about the costs associated with implementing the required changes.
Richmond said the consent agreements with federal officials, which came with technical assistance and other federal help, have improved conditions in New Orleans.
“I believe the consent decree is making that prison a better place,” he said.
More recently, the Justice Department announced in April that the civil rights division would launch this type of investigation into whether the Ville Platte Police Department and Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office were improperly detaining people on “investigative holds” without proper cause.
Richmond requested a response to his call for an investigation of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office by June 5.
The congressman said he hopes by then to see a “plan of action” for moving forward.
Richmond said he envisions two separate investigations, a continuing investigation into White’s death and the start of a more comprehensive probe of the Iberia Parish jail.
Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.