Narcotics agents with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office enforced their own code of justice, running amok in a deep culture of abuse without fear of discipline from a chain of command that tolerated and even encouraged violence, according to testimony Tuesday in the trial of Sheriff Louis Ackal.
When asked how his narcotics team viewed the residents of the neighborhoods they worked, former agent Jason Comeaux summed it up succinctly: "They were animals, and they needed to be treated like animals."
A jury began hearing evidence this week to determine if that culture of lawless law enforcement stretched all the way up to Ackal, who faces civil rights charges in an investigation of abuse and cover-ups going back to his first days in office eight years ago.
SHREVEPORT — Handcuffed inmates screamed and groaned in pain, begging for the beatings to st…
Jurors on Tuesday began hearing from some of the many deputies who have pleaded guilty in the case, all taking the witness stand to testify against their former boss.
They talked of abuse and excessive force as a routine part of the job.
Comeaux, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to beating inmates and then lying about it, said he couldn't even recall how many people he had roughed up unnecessarily.
When asked if he had ever filled out any of the use-of-force paperwork officers are required to file when an arrestee is injured, he said he wouldn't have even known where to find the forms.
"They didn't care about what we did as long as we kept the streets quiet," Comeaux said.
He said the narcotics unit, which he described as Ackal's "baby" and "golden child," was routinely called upon by the sheriff to "clear the streets" when Ackal believed there was a potential for unrest after a shooting or other major crime.
Comeaux said agents would roam neighborhoods and rough up anyone who was not inside their home, throwing them against vehicle hoods or down on the ground.
"They knew if they got out there, they were going to get stopped and get dealt with," Comeaux said. "He told us he didn't want anyone on the streets."
The intent, Comeaux said, was "to let them know it was our streets."
Suspects who didn't cooperate were treated harshly, receiving an extra knee or punches to the side, said former narcotics agent Byron Lassalle, who also pleaded guilty in the case.
"When people ran, we punished them for running," he said.
Comeaux said crossing the line was standard practice from his earliest days at the Sheriff's Office, and his recollections were thick with racial epithets.
He recalled a supervisor motioning to a stain on the floor next to a suspect being interrogated and telling the man, "You see that stain there? That's from the last n***** I shot."
He said Ackal himself once told him a story about shooting three drug suspects some 30 years ago when the sheriff worked for State Police.
Comeaux said Ackal told him he was cleared of wrongdoing because the bullets in the bodies didn't match his gun and then went on to say how told his supervisor, "I wouldn't shoot them with my own gun."
No other witnesses or documents have confirmed that incident, and U.S. District Judge Donald Walter did not let jurors hear the story, which Comeaux recited while the jury was out of the room, a test run of sorts to see if the judge would allow the story as evidence.
Comeaux told of another instance where drunken off-duty narcotics agents were given only light punishment for beating up two young black men for no reason.
"They went — what I was later told — n***** knockin'," Comeaux said.
Comeaux said Ackal was upset when he learned of the incident, but not because the deputies were out of line.
"He was mad because they got caught and there was a report written on it," Comeaux said.
Prosecutors said Ackal later had that report deleted.
Comeaux said the lesson was clear.
"It was OK to beat on whoever you wanted," he said.
Comeaux's fellow agent Lassalle said the incident with the drunken off-duty officers, which was an often-told story around the department, left him with the same impression.
"It taught me that I didn't have to follow the rules, that is was OK to step out of line because I wouldn't get in trouble for it," Lassalle said.
Comeaux's testimony also bolstered one of the prosecution's key arguments: that Ackal not only directed or gave tacit approval of abuse but was sometimes physically present while underlings carried out his orders.
Comeaux said that during an April 2011 contraband sweep at the jail, Ackal stood by as he and two other deputies beat an inmate in the jail's chapel, a location chosen because it did not have surveillance cameras.
He said Ackal singled out an inmate and told deputies, "I'm the f****** sheriff, and I want him taken care of."
Comeaux said he and the other deputies took the inmate to the chapel, where Comeaux admitted hitting the man 20 or 30 times while the other deputies struck the inmate with batons.
"He (Ackal) was the boss and he ordered it and he came in with us," Comeaux said.
When the inmate filed a lawsuit over the abuse, Comeaux said, a Sheriff's Office attorney told him he needed to "fix" his story, and Comeaux later lied in a deposition, saying the man was injured in a fight with another inmate.
Comeaux said he later told Ackal about the cover-up, and the sheriff responded, "F*** that n*****. He got in a fight."
Ackal's attorney, John McLindon, has portrayed the case against Ackal as "paycheck prosecution," built on the testimony of deputies trying to win lighter sentences for themselves by implicating Ackal to please prosecutors looking to take down a sheriff.
McLindon has not denied abuses at the hands of deputies but argues Ackal played no role, though his wishes might have been misinterpreted by deputies trying to please a man the defense attorney described as a rough, no-nonsense cop.
Testimony in the trial, which is expected to last week, is scheduled to continue Wednesday in Shreveport, where the case was moved because the judge feared intense media coverage in the Lafayette area might have made it difficult to find an impartial jury.