Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy Brandon Spillman’s professional certification was in revoked status last year at the time he placed Armando Frank in a neck hold that contributed to Frank's death

The Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, which establishes training and certification protocols for Louisiana law enforcement officers, revoked Spillman’s certification on June 15, 2017, about one month after his hiring date.

Spillman did not complete a required refresher course to reinstate the certification until Nov. 15, 2017, about three weeks after Frank was killed during a botched arrest, which was captured on body camera footage.

The revocation stemmed from Spillman’s failure to keep up with in-service training requirements during his previous job as an officer with the police department in Simmesport, a town of about 2,000 on the eastern edge of Avoyelles Parish.

Spillman worked in Simmesport for about five years, including two as the police chief. Some of the officers he hired and supervised were never POST certified, and at least two have been repeatedly accused in lawsuits of using excessive force. 

The certification is a standard qualification for patrolmen, jailers and others defined in state law as peace officers, though it isn't always the norm in smaller agencies. The Louisiana legislature in recent years has tightened certification requirements, but policies at some agencies don’t reflect changes to the law.

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Two Simmesport officers that Spillman hired, Charles Johnson and Anthony Burns, are accused of using unnecessary force on a combined four occasions over a 19-month period in 2015 and 2016. Spillman was the Simmesport chief from March 2014 to May 2016, and two of these incidents involving Johnson and Burns occurred after he stepped down as chief. One of the Simmesport lawsuits settled, another three are pending. 

The defendants in the Simmesport cases have flatly denied the allegations in court filings without elaborating on the circumstances, although Johnson has provided additional details in two depositions and a brief interview with The Advocate.

Spillman did not respond to multiple voicemail messages. Burns did not respond to a message placed with the warden of the Pointe Coupee Parish Detention Center, where Burns was recently on administrative leave from his job as a deputy. 

Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff Beauregard Torres told The Advocate on Sept. 27 that Burns was on leave at that time because he used his taser on a handcuffed inmate. The jail warden, Steve Juge, said the following week that Burns had been cleared to return to work. 

Burns has no history of attending POST certification training, according to an officer history report provided by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.

Johnson was separated from his job with the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 10 after nearly two years, according to Greg Phares, the chief criminal deputy. Phares would not elaborate on the reasons for Johnson's departure, citing advice from the agency's lawyer. 

Johnson told The Advocate he resigned from the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office because he has kidney problems.

Johnson has attended POST certification training twice this year, failing both times to complete the program, according to his officer history report. He previously attended training and failed the exam in 2013.

Spillman remains an active Avoyelles Parish sheriff’s deputy after a grand jury in March declined to indict officers in the Frank case.

Their lack of active POST certifications calls into question whether Spillman, Johnson and Burns were qualified to work on the street during a time in which they were involved in a string of controversial apprehensions.

That officers like Johnson and Burns continued to work in POST-certified positions without ever obtaining the certification illustrates how officers can shuffle from one agency to the next without fulfilling training mandates.

"It's hard to say (an officer) is violating his training when he has no training," said Christopher Washington, the Baton Rouge attorney representing plaintiffs in the four Simmesport cases. “It’s almost like they can be negligent in failing to train these officers, and that negligence insulates them from liability."

Certification requirements

State law requires full-time peace officers to successfully complete a certified training program within one year of initial employment at any Louisiana agency. Peace officers are defined to include those who perform law-enforcement activities such as making arrests and performing searches and seizures, as well as those who have custody and control of inmates.

Those failing to meet initial training requirements “shall be prohibited from exercising the authority of a peace officer,” according to state law.

Peace officers are further required to annually complete 20 hours of in-service training, and failure to do so results in automatic 90-day suspension of POST certification. Revocation occurs if the in-service hours are not completed during the suspension period. An 80-hour refresher course is needed for reinstatement.

Spillman’s revocation last year was among 81 related to in-service training gaps, according to the law enforcement commission. While the law requires full-time peace officers to complete the initial training, the consequences of revocation are less clear.

In any case, common sense calls for revoked employees not to work as peace officers until they are reinstated, said Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre, president of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

“Certainly the intent of the legislation in my mind is, if you are revoked, you lack the ability to perform the duties of a peace officer,” Webre said. "That’s how I would apply it in my agency, and I think that would be the common understanding.”

That’s not how it works at the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office, where Chief Deputy Steve Martel acknowledged there is no policy concerning deputies with revoked certification. 

Martel argued that the revocation of professional licensure doesn’t necessarily impact job performance. He compared Spillman’s certification status at the time of Frank’s death to that of “a doctor or CPA or someone else who doesn’t meet their continuing education requirements and their license is revoked for the deficiencies.”

“It doesn’t mean they are incapable of actually performing their functions. It means they are deficient,” he said. “The fact that his POST certification had these deficiencies, I don’t think it would mean he forgot all his training.”

Still, Spillman’s certification status could factor into a federal lawsuit Frank’s family is pursuing against the Sheriff’s Office, as well as Spillman and the other officers involved.

Attorneys for the family are likely to examine whether the officers were properly trained, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans-based Metropolitan Crime Commission.

“If, in fact, the Sheriff’s Office was derelict or not timely in maintaining training, much less requiring that officers remain current with their certifications, that would be a further indicator on lack of emphasis on training,” Goyeneche said.

A law enacted last year stipulates that the one-year certification deadline is uninterrupted if officers switch agencies within the state during that first year. The law was intended to ensure officers don’t jump from one agency to the next without getting certified, Webre said.

"You work for 11 months, and then you would leave and then get hired and start the clock over," Webre said, describing the loophole the law was meant to close.

There are approximately 23,000 certified peace officers in Louisiana, according to the law enforcement commission, but the commission does not track how many officers are working without certification.

Some agencies haven't adapted their policies to the new law. The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office policy concerning certification, for example, is that all new hires must achieve certification within one year, Martel said.

That means it's possible to work as a non-certified Avoyelles Parish deputy for a full year after working as a non-certified officer somewhere else for most of the previous year.

The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office isn't the only agency with an outdated policy. Sheriff Beauregard Torres of Pointe Coupee Parish said he wasn't aware of the requirement that all officers obtain POST certification within one year of employment, even if they switch agencies. 

"That opens up a whole different set of circumstances," Torres said. "It's something we have to deal with."

Armando Frank

Armando Frank was unarmed and seated on a tractor in a Wal-Mart parking lot before he died at the hands of police officers, as seen on body camera footage. He refused to get down when officers told him they had a warrant for his arrest, and he resisted when officers moved in to force him off the tractor.

Spillman climbed the tractor and applied the neck hold, as officers unsuccessfully tried to subdue Frank with tasers. An errant electrode struck Spillman while his forearm was pressed against Frank's neck.

Frank is heard on the video coughing, gasping and saying repeatedly in a strained voice to "let me up.” His body appears limp once he is finally wrestled to the ground and handcuffed, and one officer is heard saying that Frank is playing dead.

A forensic pathologist report ordered by the Sheriff's Office determined that Spillman and other officers suffocated Frank, first by manually strangling him with the neck hold and then by pressing him against the tractor. 

Cardiovascular disease and obesity were secondary causes of death because they increased Frank’s vulnerability to respiratory stress, according to pathologist Christopher Tape’s report.

About two and a half minutes after an officer surmised that Frank was "dead weighing," someone is heard asking if Frank is breathing. As Tape noted in his report, however, the question was met with "no answer and no apparent action or reaction" by anyone on the scene. 

Spillman claimed he never applied pressure to Frank's throat, according a Sheriff's Office internal investigation report. Tape's autopsy revealed multiple wounds to Frank's neck.  

The warrant for simple criminal trespass and unauthorized attempted entry of an inhabited dwelling stemmed from an argument Frank had with his neighbor at the neighbor's doorway. Deputies on the scene found no sign of forced entry, according to the Sheriff's Office report. 

The violent apprehension of Frank was the fifth in Avoyelles Parish in less than four years that resulted in a lawsuit naming Spillman, Johnson or Burns, or a combination of those three, as defendants. The incidents all started with minor infractions or disturbances and ended in severe injuries, including gunshot wounds, head gashes, broken bones and death.

Such repeated allegations are rare, and should surface in any pre-employment background check, said Webre, the sheriffs’ association president.

"The vast majority of officers don't find themselves on the receiving end of an allegation or a lawsuit," Webre said.

The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office did not contact any character or employment references Spillman listed on his job application, according to a memo to Martel, the chief deputy, from an assistant who reviewed the application. The memo was obtained through a public records request.  

In an interview, Martel said pre-employment interviews weren't necessary because Spillman had a good reputation among Sheriff's Office personnel who knew him from previous interactions while Spillman worked in Simmesport.  

"Day-to-day knowledge of him was probably one of the overriding factors of employment," Martel said.

Simmesport allegations

Burns’ tasering of a handcuffed inmate in Pointe Coupee Parish recalls a July 2016 incident in Simmesport, in which Burns is accused of pulling over with a handcuffed man in the back of his squad car and threatening to “taze the f*** out of you, boy,” according to a pending lawsuit.

The plaintiff in the case, Cedric Thornton, says he was walking out of a store with a new license plate light bulb to replace the one that was out on his car when Burns arrested him on an outstanding warrant.

Burns is not accused of using his taser on Thornton, but the officer allegedly threw the handcuffed Thornton down a flight of stairs once at the Avoyelles Parish jail.

About two months before that, Burns was accused of using a choke hold on Brian Washington as Washington leaned into his car to strap a child into her car seat during a traffic blockage. He then allegedly slammed Washington to the ground.

Johnson, who is also accused in the Washington lawsuit, joined the Simmesport Police Department in February 2015, nearly a year and a half after he failed his first POST certification exam. Johnson testified in a March 30 deposition that he was fired from the New Roads Police Department after failing the exam, but that he wasn’t asked to get certified as a Simmesport officer until after he shot a fleeing motorist.

Johnson did not attend any certification training during his stint in Simmesport, according to his officer history report.   

The shooting of the motorist happened about two weeks after Johnson was hired in Simmesport. Johnson testified that Adam Robertson drove toward him while he stood outside his police unit with emergency lights flashing, although he acknowledged he wasn’t standing directly in Robertson’s path of travel. Johnson initially fired into the front of Robertson’s car, and continued shooting as Robertson veered further away and passed through an adjacent field, according to his testimony.

Johnson agreed in his deposition that State Police photos of Robertson’s car showed three bullet holes in front and seven on the driver side. He admitted that he continued firing when he was not in danger of being run over, but that he was in “a state of shock.” He also maintained it was necessary to keep shooting as Robertson passed.

“The threat wasn’t neutralized yet,” Johnson said, according to the deposition transcript.

Robertson, who admitted being high at the time, crashed into a ditch with gunshot wounds in his legs. He denied that his headlights were turned off, and said he was frightened because of a previous encounter with Spillman.

A few months before the shooting, which happened when Robertson was 24 years old, Spillman stopped and searched him as he walked to a relative's house late at night, Robertson testified. Roberston said Spillman threatened to throw him in jail if he was caught outside again "after hours.”

Johnson declined to discuss the Robertson case in an interview, citing the pending case.

Johnson tried to issue a citation to Joshua Webb in October 2016 for wearing saggy pants in violation of town ordinance. Webb resisted arrest by jerking his arm way when Johnson tried to grab him from a parked car, Johnson testified in an April 26 deposition. Webb posed a threat, Johnson testified, because he may have been sitting on a weapon in the car, although nothing indicated that was the case. 

Johnson is accused of pulling Webb from the car and using brute force to arrest him. Webb suffered a broken spine, a skull wound that required staples and a broken toe sustained when Johnson “stomped” on it, according to the lawsuit. Some of the injuries are alleged to have occurred while Webb was handcuffed at the police station.

Johnson admitted in the April 26 deposition that he slapped Webb in the face while Webb was on the ground at the police station, because "he was acting like he was unconscious." Asked in the deposition if he had ever been trained when it's appropriate to slap someone, Johnson replied that he had not. 

Asked in an interview if he stomped on Webb’s toe, Johnson replied “not that I know of.” As to the cause of any of Webb’s injuries, Johnson said “you have to ask him.”

The case settled for $50,000, which covered Webb’s injuries, according to Webb’s attorney. 

A non-certified department

Johnson said he quit the Simmesport job after a new mayor was elected in November 2016, the month after the Webb incident. Johnson had cited the mayor-elect, Leslie Draper, for failing to stop at a stop sign during the campaign.

“Everybody had a vendetta against me because I wrote the mayor (a ticket),” Johnson said. “At the end of the day I have a job to do to enforce the law, and I guess he didn’t like it, so I left.”

Draper said he “absolutely” stopped, but that he didn’t challenge the ticket to avoid turning it into a campaign issue.

Spillman stepped down as chief about six months before the elections, but he remained commissioned as a part-time detective until Draper took office in January 2017.

Draper said he doesn't know why Spillman resigned as chief. He said there weren't any personnel records for Spillman, Burns and Johnson when he took office.

Draper, a former prison chaplain and church pastor, said the community and police have not enjoyed good relations in recent years.

“It was a pretty hostile environment,” Draper said. “We basically had a non POST-certified department.”

Nearly every Simmesport police officer quit or was fired after Draper’s election, and the chief Draper hired, Damion Jacobs, said he is rebuilding the police department “from the ground up.” Jacobs said he wants every officer to be POST certified.

“I don’t want no wiggle room,” Jacobs said. “I want to do it the right way.”

Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.