VILLE PLATTE — The practice of putting people "on ice" began so long ago in Evangeline Parish that no one still wearing a badge can recall its origin. But over the years, the so-called investigative holds became as much a part of policing here as pat-downs and parking tickets. 

For as long as anyone can remember, the U.S. Justice Department reported recently, anyone walking the streets could be taken into custody for questioning if detectives had the slightest hunch they knew something about a crime — or perhaps knew someone who did. They were jailed indefinitely without probable cause or charges, let alone access to a telephone or an attorney.

The Ville Platte Police Department and Evangeline Parish Sheriff's Office conducted more than 900 of these unconstitutional arrests over a single three-year period, federal authorities found. Suspects, witnesses, persons of interest — and their relatives — were strip-searched and detained for days in cells without beds. At least 30 of these cases involved juveniles.

"The willingness of officers in both agencies to arrest and detain individuals who are merely possible witnesses in criminal investigations means that literally anyone in Evangeline Parish or Ville Platte could be arrested and placed 'on hold' at any time," the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division wrote.

The government used words like "staggering" to describe the prevalence of illegal confinement in this northern corner of Acadiana, raising concerns about the specter of "coerced confessions."

Both agencies engaged in a "pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct," the feds alleged, eroding the community's trust in law enforcement and potentially tainting an untold number of criminal convictions. 

Ville Platte Police Chief Neal Lartigue doesn't deny the practice was widespread. But to hear him tell it, no one in a position of authority here ever suspected that investigative holds flew in the face of the 4th Amendment, which requires authorities to have probable cause to detain people. It's just how things were handled, he insisted, passed down through generations of local law enforcement like a recipe for boudin sausage.

"We never intended to violate anyone's constitutional rights," Lartigue said in an interview with The Advocate last week. "This went back way before my administration and any administration that I worked under here in the past 25 years. We were all trained into it." 

Alex Chapman Jr., the parish's public defender, said he was not aware the holds were used so broadly in part because many of the people who were illegally detained were never booked and thus had no need for a lawyer.

Part of 'the old ways'

Like Lartigue, Chapman said he did not believe the authorities willfully disregarded the law, describing investigative holds as part of "the old ways" that permeate the small town. He said the police enjoy a certain immunity due to the "color of their uniform."

"I don't know that they realized that citizens who are not even accused of a crime have basic rights and that you can't infringe on that," Chapman said. "A human being becomes a different person when they have total control and no consequences for what they do."

But the contention that the culprit is institutional ignorance, rather than willful disregard for the law, has been a hard sell among some Ville Platte residents, and some of them are demanding consequences. Several residents said they were frustrated that the federal investigation has not yielded criminal charges.

"This has been going on for too long," said Arthur Sampson, a longtime activist and former NAACP president in Evangeline Parish. 

The report comes at a tumultuous time for the parish's law enforcement, which has struggled with high rates of turnover and mounting mistrust among residents, especially in African-American neighborhoods. Earlier this year, third-term Sheriff Eddie Soileau, citing a financial emergency, sought an opinion from state Attorney General Jeff Landry on whether he could "legally operate without having law enforcement duties" — in other words, give up police work.

Landry's office reminded Soileau of his mandate to uphold the law, adding that "no public official may choose to shrug a yoke his office bears by constitutional decree." Soileau, who was re-elected in 2015 with 59 percent of the vote, did not return calls for comment from The Advocate. 

Elected officials largely played down the Justice Department report, even as they accepted the government's demand that the Police Department and Sheriff's Office adopt detailed written policies forbidding the use of investigative holds. City leaders have taken "laudable steps" in that direction since the investigation began in April 2015, the Justice Department said, but "more work remains to be done." 

"I don’t think the city is trying to avoid addressing the problem, and I think, in large part, they didn't know that they had a problem," said state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte.

LaFleur, who also serves as city attorney here, said he believed that in many of the cases in question, officers actually had probable cause to make an arrest but just failed to properly document it and ensure the detainee received a timely court hearing. 

"To anybody that it happened to, it's a major problem," LaFleur added, "but I just don't see it as widespread as maybe the report would make it sound."

'Target the leadership'

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, said he was disappointed by the government's findings, saying the report "cast a shadow on the great work that the vast majority of our wonderful police force does." He stopped short of calling for the sheriff and police chief to step down, but he added, "I think you have to target the leadership here."

"They have to take most of the responsibility," Abraham said. "Things have got to be set straight."

The Justice Department report includes shocking anecdotes, including a 2014 case in which Ville Platte police detained a woman they believed had witnessed an armed robbery and shooting while she was grocery shopping. Even after she told investigators she had no information about the crime, the police came to her home and took her — along with her boyfriend and a 16-year-old — into custody. 

"Officers strip-searched the woman, who was menstruating at the time, and forced her to remove her tampon," the report says, adding that the woman was then placed in the jail's general population for hours without sanitary products before being questioned by detectives. Meanwhile, the woman's boyfriend and the 16-year-old were placed in separate cells and detained for hours. 

"None of these individuals were suspected of having any connection to the robbery or shooting," the report says, "yet detectives incarcerated them for significant periods of time before showing them a line-up and asking them questions about what they may have witnessed." 

Without naming him, the Justice Department report says "the district attorney" participated in the woman's interrogation following her unlawful arrest. District Attorney Trent Brignac, who was first elected in 2008, did not returns calls from The Advocate seeking comment.   

A former FBI agent first alerted the Police Department and Sheriff's Office in 2014 to the "unconstitutionality of their holds practices," the Justice Department said. "Although the FBI agent encouraged both agencies to stop using investigative holds, both agencies continued to employ the practice for many months thereafter."

The Justice Department launched its civil-rights probe the following year, examining arrests made between the beginning of 2012 and the end of 2014. "We spent probably two months pulling files from archives, making sure they had every arrest record," said LaFleur, the state senator and city attorney. 

The investigation found that the Evangeline Parish Sheriff's Office, which polices about 33,000 residents, had listed "investigative hold" as the lone basis for more than 200 arrests during that period. The Ville Platte Police Department, which polices 7,300 residents, used the holds more than 700 times.  

The Justice Department reviewed thousands of pages of reports and booking logs at both the city and parish jails. Both agencies kept such poor records that the government said it was "unable to quantify the full scope of constitutional violations."

While Chapman, the public defender, said he believed that black residents had been disproportionately affected by the investigative holds, the Justice Department said a lack of documentation prevented it from assessing "the impact of the hold practice on particular racial, ethnic or other demographic groups."

Into 'the bullpen'

The investigative holds happened when detectives instructed patrol officers to go out into the community and bring in a person for questioning. At the parish jail, these detainees were placed in a holding cell referred to as "the bullpen," where they would sleep on a concrete floor or metal bench as they waited to be interrogated. The technique became known as "putting them on ice," and investigators hoped that the experience would encourage cooperation.

The holds often lasted for three days or longer, but one deputy recalled a detainee being held for more than six days "without a warrant or a probable cause determination." Louisiana law requires a probable cause determination to be made within two days of a warrantless arrest. 

The Sheriff's Office would not allow persons "on hold" to make phone calls to their family. Detectives threatened jailers with retaliation "if the officers allowed detainees to make phone calls," the report said.

"One EPSO jail officer described an incident in which an EPSO detective reprimanded him after the jail officer provided toothpaste and other personal supplies to a person locked in the holding cell," the report said. 

Authorities said the holds made it easier to develop evidence in many cases, and one detective told the feds "he has used investigative holds experimentally, testing whether a crime wave subsides while a particular person is in jail."

The Justice Department, however, said it has "grave concerns that this longstanding, coercive practice has led to wrongful convictions based on false information."

The report also highlighted a mistrust and fear of law enforcement that was evident in interviews last week, particularly in Ville Platte's black community. Several residents told The Advocate they have been harassed by police, particularly by officers enforcing a remarkable 2010 city ordinance that requires pedestrians to wear reflective gear while walking around at night. Violators can be punished with a $200 fine and up to 30 days in jail. 

"They only use that to search your pockets," said Tevin Thomas, 24, who has been ticketed for failure to wear reflective gear. "They're basically trying to catch a drug charge on you. It's not right around here." 

The city previously enacted a controversial "walking curfew" that forbade travel by foot from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on weekends. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged that ordinance in court, prompting its revocation and a consent decree requiring any further curfews "be the least restrictive measure necessary to achieve a compelling need."

"They come in our community looking to arrest," said Alonzo Leday, 35, referring to the police. "There's no jobs and no businesses. It's like it's set up for us to commit crime, and that's how they make money." 

Lartigue, the Ville Platte police chief, who was last re-elected in 2014, said he was not embarrassed by the Justice Department report but was "glad to be able to correct" the department's arrest protocols. He now requires officers to complete probable cause affidavits "before you put anyone behind the bars." 

The chief said he is working with the Justice Department to implement new policies forbidding investigative holds so that "in 15 years, when we're all retired, it won't start up again."

"When it come about that, 'Hey, fellas, y'all doing this wrong, you can't do this,' we took immediate action," Lartigue said. "We've brought things to where they need to be; we just need a more in-depth policy. We're here to uphold the law."

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.