NEW IBERIA — When Louis Ackal first ran for sheriff, in 2007, Patricia Hypolite canvassed the West End here with a bullhorn, trying to assure New Iberia's black community that Ackal had the bona fides to bring this city together.
A Cajun raconteur and tough-talking lawman, Ackal promised to restore the rule of law in Iberia Parish, without regard for race or politics.
Hypolite, a longtime community activist, became one of his most loyal ambassadors, campaigning for him "not with my mouth," she recalled, "but with my heart."
"He was so convincing, and I was so sold on wanting him to be sheriff," said Hypolite, a respected matriarch here who, after a falling-out, backed Ackal's opponent in last year's election. "But my pain today is so great from the racist words he's uttered against my people. At some point, this sheriff began thinking he was God."
Hypolite's disenchantment reached new heights last week as she followed Ackal's federal trial on allegations of civil-rights abuses, recoiling as one deputy after another took the witness stand and described a lawless culture in which officers assaulted blacks for sport, allegedly with the sheriff's blessing. The sheriff played by his own set of rules, the deputies testified, condoning jailhouse beatings and encouraging other misconduct.
"I was untouchable," Wade Bergeron — a disgraced former narcotics agent who pleaded guilty to civil-rights charges and agreed to testify against his former boss — told jurors in U.S. District Court. "We could pretty much get away with anything."
Jurors rejected the government's claims that Ackal countenanced these abuses, acquitting the sheriff Friday after a week-long trial that was moved from Lafayette to Shreveport because of pre-trial publicity.
But even if Ackal is off the hook legally, he faces a daunting challenge in regaining the trust of a deeply divided community. His defense against charges of conspiracy and deprivation of rights amounted to an astonishing admission that he was unaware, for years, of widespread malfeasance that occurred on his watch.
"If the sheriff doesn't set the example for his officers, how will they be able to follow?" said Charles E. Banks Sr., a New Iberia resident who is pastor of Fellowship Full Gospel Ministries in Lafayette. "We need the law, no doubt. But we need someone who's going to be consistent, honest and reliable."
At a time of a growing national discussion of police brutality, Ackal's proceedings stood out not merely because a sitting sheriff found himself on trial and facing federal prison a year after he won re-election. Rather, the government's case was remarkable for the sheer number of deputies who admitted to wrongdoing and implicated their boss — using bluntly racist language in doing so.
Ten deputies pleaded guilty, including Bergeron, who told jurors about a time, in 2008, when he and two drunken colleagues randomly targeted and beat up two young blacks, ages 16 and 22.
The sheriff, Bergeron claimed, not only sanctioned the attack as a defensible case of "n***** knocking" but ordered the deletion of a report that named the deputies as suspects in the assault.
"He wanted to take the streets back from the n******," added Marion Borel, another former narcotics agent.
Ackal disavowed all knowledge of his deputies' crimes, and his defense attorney, John McLindon, blamed the misconduct on a rogue narcotics unit.
"As a Southern person," Ackal told The Advocate on Saturday, he had prayed he would not be found guilty "of something I didn't do." He was so sure of his innocence, he said, that he refused a plea offer from the government on Thursday that carried a term of five years behind bars.
"I had that much trust in the judicial system," he said. "I told them, 'I'm going to fight you to my last breath.' "
Pressed to explain how he could have failed to notice so many of his officers were misbehaving, the sheriff said that a number of "buffers" in the department clouded his view of the havoc his deputies wreaked in the community over the past eight years.
"Working in the black section is very hard," Ackal said. "They say, 'Well, you should stop the patrol car and get out and talk to the kids on the corner.' (If you do,) they all start running, and now I know why."
The case has plunged race relations in New Iberia, a stubbornly segregated city about 30 miles southeast of Lafayette, to depths not seen since a notorious tear gas run-in in 2006. In that instance, deputies working under Ackal's predecessor, Sid Hebert, deployed the irritant on a crowd in the West End following the annual Sugar Cane Festival and Fair.
Many are also still aggrieved about the shooting death of Victor White III, a black man who, in 2014, died of a gunshot wound while handcuffed in the backseat of an Iberia Parish deputy's car. State and federal prosecutors declined to bring charges in the case, determining that White committed suicide. White's family recently asked the U.S. Justice Department to take a fresh look at the case in light of the civil-rights charges against Ackal and his deputies.
Despite his acquittal, Ackal faces hard questions about whether he can continue to lead. The sheriff has lost almost all credibility in the city's black neighborhoods, where the mere mention of his name prompts head-shaking and muttered epithets on some street corners. In interviews, multiple residents referred to him as a "gangster with a badge."
"They should hang him," said Travis Lynn, who like many others said he's noticed a diminished law enforcement presence in the West End since Ackal's indictment.
Walking along South Hopkins Street, Lynn offered a hypothetical example to explain the community's mistrust of deputies: "If your car got stuck right here," he said, motioning toward the side of the road, "they'd tell you to call a wrecker rather than giving you a jump."
Ackal "would just as soon shoot a black person as look at him," said John, a middle-aged black man who lives in New Iberia and declined to give his last name for fear of retribution. African-American residents have become increasingly afraid of deputies, he said, based on their own experiences and those they hear about on the streets.
"A young black man in his 20s is like a walking target," he added. "As far as your imagination can take you, it's worse than that. I'm scared for my son, just because he's in that age bracket."
Arthur Robinson, who has lived in New Iberia since 2008, said there is a pervasive feeling among blacks that deputies believe they are above the law. He said he has seen deputies harass and "rough up" blacks at times, including a 16-year-old girl he said was slammed to the ground and knocked unconscious at the Sugar Cane Festival two years ago.
A large part of the problem, Robinson said, is the failure of Ackal's deputies to communicate with the people they are supposed to serve. That breeds mistrust, which affects detectives' ability to solve crimes, including a string of unsolved murders this year, as witnesses are reluctant to come forward.
"Everybody's not bad," Robinson said. "I'm a 42-year-old man. Don't talk to me like I'm 16."
Despite successive scandals and high-profile lawsuits, Ackal won re-election to a third term last year. He remains widely respected among older white voters, many of whom said they believed the government exaggerated the charges against him in its zeal to send a sheriff to federal prison.
"He's lost the trust of part of this community, but I think many people are still behind him," said Robert McJimsey, a retired teacher who lives in nearby Loreauville. The deputies who testified against Ackal, McJimsey said, tried "to save their own hide" and might even have received "a payoff."
Another Ackal supporter, Mark Dressel, who owns a towing company, said he believed Ackal was guilty only of putting too much trust in his subordinates. He dismissed allegations that the sheriff orchestrated beatings inside the chapel of the Iberia Parish jail. Federal prosecutors said that room was used for assaults because it had no security cameras.
"If Louis wanted to knock the s*** out of you, he would knock the s*** out of you himself," said Dressel, who has been a friend of Ackal for 40 years. "He's just an upright guy."
'A downward spiral'
With the trial over, the community has turned to the question of how to move forward. The controversy has renewed discussions about reviving the city's Police Department, which was disbanded in 2004.
Mayor Hilda Curry, who is leaving office at the end of the year, said New Iberia has been "in a downward spiral since we lost our police department," a measure she voted against as a councilwoman. The city, which has a contract with the Sheriff's Office through next year, is the largest in the state without its own police force.
"We had community policing when we had a police department," Curry said. "The next administration is going to have to take a hard look at what they want to do."
Ackal said Saturday he would welcome the return of the New Iberia Police Department. "It would be a big relief to my budget," he said.
In the meantime, the sheriff said, he will have a "come to Jesus" meeting with deputies "about what I expect from them." He said he believes the federal government has concluded its investigation of the Sheriff's Office.
The Justice Department, in seeking to stem police abuses, has entered into reform agreements in a number of cities in recent years, including New Orleans, which saw a spike in police brutality in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But despite the shocking pattern of misconduct exposed in federal court last week, Ackal said he has heard no talk of the government pursuing such a consent decree in Iberia Parish.
"I guess I have to become much more involved with everyone that works with me," the sheriff said. "From now on, I want a status report on every use of force. And I have to teach that patrolman to park that car and talk to the kids. We're losing our black children."