More than three years after a rookie Baton Rouge police officer was fired for falsifying a report, she was allowed to return to the force this week and collect back pay. But local prosecutors say her damaged credibility could jeopardize future criminal cases.
Michelle Patterson was arrested in 2017 after detectives said she falsified public records and committed malfeasance in office. After completing a pretrial diversion program, she could now have the arrest expunged from her record, officials said this week.
The trouble began when Patterson issued a misdemeanor summons for possession of marijuana, then lost track of the half-smoked joint she seized as evidence, according to her termination letter and attorneys. Instead of coming clean, she rewrote the police reports to say no drugs were found, the letter said.
BRPD Chief Murphy Paul fired Patterson in 2018 because an internal investigation found she violated several department policies. After Patterson appealed the termination, Paul said he reviewed the case with his attorneys and decided to reinstate her.
The case contrasts with other recent BRPD discipline cases, which have landed before the local civil service board on appeal and resulted in dramatic showdowns — some lasting several hours and even into the night — among Paul and his subordinates. The hearings have become a point of contention for Paul, who recently told the board he was sick of being "bullied" by some officers who keep challenging his authority.
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With the Patterson case, Paul said he wanted to avoid another marathon public hearing and figured the board would overturn his decision anyway, like it did with Siya Creel, the former BRPD union vice president fired for a media interview and reinstated by the board.
Regardless of whether Patterson gets her record expunged, she will remain on a so-called Brady list maintained by the East Baton Rouge District Attorney to keep track of local law enforcement officers whose past misconduct makes them unreliable witnesses.
Accusations of untruthfulness and other offenses — including falsifying documents — must be disclosed in court whenever those officers arrest someone, which makes those cases more difficult to prosecute, District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.
He said even if Patterson gets her criminal record expunged, she still has the falsification ruling in her BRPD personnel file.
"It's a mess for us if she makes an arrest," he said after learning of her return.
Patterson received written notice Monday of her new work assignment: Second District uniform patrol, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Advocate.
In place of termination, she received an 87-day suspension — the same discipline the civil service board gave Creel, the fired union vice president, after a 14-hour appeal hearing. The agreement also allows her to collect back pay for the three years since her termination, Paul said. That means she receives accrued sick days and vacation leave — and sees her rank elevated from officer to corporal, which happens after six years of service.
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Patterson made $35,662 in base pay for 2017, the year before she was fired. Her current salary was not immediately available. She joined the department in 2015.
Patterson is related by marriage to Clay Young, who runs a marketing firm that holds a contract for social media consulting work with BRPD. Records show the $200,000 grant-funded contract was awarded in August 2020 to Clay Young Enterprises. Paul recently appeared on "The Clay Young Show," a new show on WBRZ+ hosted by Young, to talk about rising violent crime.
A BRPD spokesman denied the relevance of any potential personal relationship between Patterson and Young, noting that the officer was hired "prior to Young's paid working relationship with the department."
Paul said the question was unfair. He said all his decisions are "based on facts, not personal."
He said his attorneys reviewed the evidence in light of the Creel hearing and concluded the civil service board would likely side with Patterson. He noted some issues with the investigation, which occurred in 2017 before he took office. He also said Patterson was a rookie officer when she made the mistake and will undergo additional training.
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Patterson was placed under investigation after a manager with the East Baton Rouge Housing Authority contacted the department looking for police reports about a resident who had been issued a summons for marijuana possession, records show. The manager requested the report because she wanted to evict the resident.
Officers noticed discrepancies with the reports, then reviewed bodycam footage from the encounter, which showed Patterson confiscating a joint and issuing a summons.
An audit of the BRPD reporting system showed Patterson "originally wrote the report correctly, but then deleted the correct information and replaced it with the report indicating no marijuana was found," according to her disciplinary letter.
During an interview, Patterson told investigators she seized the marijuana cigarette and then misplaced it, the letter says. She said she asked her supervisor for advice and he told her to rewrite the report, implying the case was no big deal anyway. The supervisor "vehemently denied" the account, and two other officers who overheard the conversation backed him up, according to the letter.
If Patterson had come clean about accidentally losing the marijuana instead of rewriting the reports, she may have received minor discipline like a letter of caution, but nothing serious, a department spokesman said.