Longtime West Baton Rouge Sheriff Mike Cazes faces three other Democrats in a re-election bid that follows calls for greater transparency and for a better relationship between the sheriff's office and the community.
In recent months, the parish has seen the fatal shooting of a man by a deputy in a raid at a motel, frequent escapes by jail inmates and the malfeasance conviction of a deputy accused of assaulting women during traffic stops.
Cazes, a 16-year incumbent and a Democrat, faces Simmesport Police Officer Barnell Williams, former District Judge J. Robin Free and Port Allen City Marshal Mike Zito in the Oct. 12 primary. Early voting starts Sept. 28 and runs for a week.
Challengers contend new leadership is needed in the wake of several scandals that have cast enormous attention on Louisiana's second-smallest parish.
“Everybody is basically displeased with the current sheriff and the administration,” said Williams, 48. “We’re a bleeding parish, and we need a tourniquet.”
Cazes touts his tenure as the parish’s top law enforcement official and the focus he’s put on rehabilitating jail inmates by setting them up with skills and jobs, some of which they keep after they’re paroled.
He agrees more work needs to be done to ensure inmates enrolled in work programs don’t escape. Cazes points to an effort to reduce recidivism by putting inmates on track before they’re released.
"We're doing everything we can to rehabilitate and better them, make them a better person," Cazes said. “The whole goal is to get them the training (and) get them skills for when they get out of jail.”
To win outright on Oct. 12, a candidate needs at least one vote over 50 percent. If no one reaches the mark, a runoff will be held Nov. 16 between the top two finishers.
Cazes comfortably won re-election in 2015 by securing 73 percent of the vote in a two-way race.
In the past year, he and the department have fallen under intense scrutiny.
State Police cleared Cazes of any criminal wrongdoing following allegations he had paid a sex offender enrolled in the state work-release program to work at his home this spring using his own money.
Though Louisiana State Police exonerated West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Mike Cazes in an inmate labor investigation, the initial findings of …
Several deputies from the parish jail were arrested this past year under allegations of misconduct, including inappropriate relations with inmates. Multiple inmates have also escaped or walked off from work-release sites. This summer, a deputy pleaded guilty to malfeasance after women complained he sexually assaulted them during traffic stops.
Most recently, several residents have pushed for greater transparency and answers after a deputy, identified as Vance Matranga Jr., fatally shot Josef Richardson, 38, in the back of the neck while executing a “no-knock” warrant of the Port Allen man’s motel room.
Richardson’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit and called for a federal investigation.
Fanning community concerns was the decision to allow Matranga to return to work ahead of State Police finishing its investigation into whether he broke any laws. The sheriff’s office said Matranga would not perform active police duties while the case is open.
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 ro…
Williams said the decision shows a lapse in judgment given the unrest the shooting has caused.
Zito, a former Port Allen police officer and City Marshal for the city, said allowing Matranga to return is potentially dangerous. Zito said he worries Matranga's presence in administrative buildings could provoke more unrest.
Cazes declined to comment on the investigation into hiring the inmate and the recent shooting, citing advice from his lawyer. He said his department immediately recused itself from the July 23 shooting and handed the case to state investigators.
Williams says a major step to repair splintered trust starts with modernizing the sheriff’s office. Deputies have neither squad car dash cameras nor body cameras, both items he would like to see used.
He said he plans to find ways to pay for the technology upgrades by seeking grants that help smaller law enforcement departments. Other candidates also agree that body cameras are needed, a stark deviation from Cazes, who said he doesn't believe they are needed.
All three challengers have also expressed a greater need for more proactive policing in the community.
“You should know when people are home and what kind of car they drive when you go past their house,” Zito said. He said he would also like to create programs that connect young people in the parish to the department.
Free, 57, touts his experience as a judge: “I hope to use my knowledge of the law and experience in the law to move the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office forward in a positive direction.”
The former judge was set to return to the bench after a year-long suspension after a judicial commission found he had accepted a trip from a Texas attorney whose client was awarded $1.2 million in an injury lawsuit Free presided over in 2014. But several new allegations came forward in the weeks before Free was set return.
According to judicial complaints obtained by The Advocate, the state Supreme Court had been investigating claims that Free had harassed sheriff's deputies involved in speed enforcement along U.S. 190. Another complaint questioned whether Free was adhering to his suspension, which barred him from practicing law, when he took a job to update the Iberville Parish government's personnel manual.
Embattled state District Judge J. Robin Free resigned Friday, just three weeks before he was set to return to the bench after a yearlong suspension.
The court was also reviewing allegations Free had interfered with a criminal investigation involving his girlfriend in East Baton Rouge Parish. She had been accused of assaulting a family member who had been staying in a FEMA shelter after the 2016 floods.
Those complaints became public after Free qualified to run for office this summer, even though the court didn't issue a final decision on them.
Free wrote to the judicial commission in June 2017 saying that if they had credible evidence that he’d “pose a substantial threat of serious harm to the public" that he would retire. He voluntarily stepped down three days after sending the letter.
Free did not return phone messages seeking comment about the complaints.
He said in an earlier interview that he didn't harass deputies, but stopped short at saying how he would repair any ruptured relations with them. "I talked to them about things that came to light and the things they were doing," Free said. "If they think it was harassment, it wasn't intended that way."