Vance Matranga

Vance Matranga Jr.

The West Baton Rouge deputy who fatally shot a Port Allen man during a narcotics operation in late July has returned to work in a "civilian role," over the objections of the man's family and their supporters who say his reinstatement is premature ahead of State Police completing their investigation of the fatal encounter.

The West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office said Deputy Vance Matranga Jr. was given his badge back, but not a service gun, after reporting to work Wednesday. Since he won't be allowed to carry a weapon, he'll be serving in a limited capacity while an investigation into the fatal July 25 is pending, the Sheriff's Office said.

Matranga, a nine-year veteran with the sheriff's office, fatally shot Josef Richardson while executing a "no-knock" warrant of Richardson's room at the Budget 7 motel along U.S. 190. An autopsy found Richardson, 38, suffered a fatal bullet wound to the back of his neck, raising questions among family, local and national activists whether the shooting was justified.

The sheriff's office said Matranga will mainly perform clerical work and other office duties for the foreseeable future. But Richardson's family and community activists contend Matranga shouldn't be allowed to work at all while the investigation is active.

"This is atrocious and highlights why we shouldn't trust the system in which these guys are allowed to operate in," the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP wrote in a statement Wednesday.

Louisiana State Police plan to forward their findings to the local district attorney's office to review if Matranga violated any state laws, a process that can take months to complete and has compounded concerns among Richardson's family about the fairness of the investigation.

West Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Dale Simoneaux said Matranga has been on paid leave since the night of the shooting. A doctor cleared Matranga to return to work this week, although he'll remain off the streets and won't be allowed to do patrol work or active policing, he said.

"He's strictly in a civilian role," Simoneaux said. "It would be a disservice to the people of the parish for him to be sitting at home collecting a paycheck."

While Matranga wasn't issued a service gun, the department cannot prevent him from carrying a private gun under the Second Amendment, Simoneaux said.

The Baton Rouge Police Department has also been scrutinized for its own administrative leave policies after Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, the officers involved in the highly publicized 2016 police shooting of Alton Sterling, were kept on paid leave for almost two years while federal and state prosecutors investigated the case before ultimately declining to criminally charge them.

It raised questions about paying officers to sit at home while their investigations dragged on for so long.

BRPD leaders have since created alternative options for officers during minor internal investigations by assigning them to "temporary restricted duty," which often amounts to answering phones or completing other office tasks. That option was added to department policy earlier this year partly due to manpower issues, officials said.

But Cpl. Britt Jones, who oversees changes to BRPD policies, noted that it's not used when an officer's alleged offenses rise to a certain level, such as serious use of force cases or other serious incidents. In those cases the department considers it more important to protect the agency from the potential negative impacts of that officer returning to work any way, he said.

Unpaid leave is rare at agencies across the country because of civil service laws and other measures that protect the interests of law enforcement officers.

Ron Haley Jr., Richardson's family attorney, said Matranga's return to work is premature and he shouldn't serve in any capacity ahead of a final review.

Richardson's family filed a federal lawsuit this week alleging wrongful death and excessive force against Matranga and the sheriff's office. They said Richardson wasn't a threat because he was surrendering to them and was in his underwear when deputies stormed his room.

Deputies had been investigating suspected drug activity at the motel after receiving a tip from an informant who reported buying drugs from a person there, according to the warrant. A district judge approved the use of "no-knock" warrant allowing deputies to enter the room without warning after detectives wrote that drugs could be concealed or destroyed.

Jessica Clouatre, Richardson's girlfriend, was in the room and reportedly saw a deputy point a gun directly behind his head before firing, according to the civil complaint.

"There are serious allegations that have not been answered yet," Haley said, adding that although Matranga is on so-called "desk duty," he is still a certified law officer and able to make arrests and act in that capacity. "This is absolutely outrageous and insensitive to the family."

State Police haven't offered a timetable for when they expect to complete their investigation.

Staff writer Lea Skene contributed to this report.

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.