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A man is seen in handcuffs after entering the crime scene as Baton Rouge police investigate the scene of a shooting that left at least one person dead, Saturday, March 27, 2021, on N. 38th Street near Cain Street in Baton Rouge, La.

After local prosecutors dismissed more than 100 cases involving two Baton Rouge police officers recently accused of misconduct, the sheer number of dropped charges exemplifies what some consider a longstanding dilemma facing the BRPD narcotics division.

The question is whether detectives should focus more on large-scale narcotics trafficking investigations, rather than churning out a high volume of lower level drug arrests, according to the district attorney and others.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said many defendants arrested for drug possession or low-level distribution end up repeatedly cycling through the local court system. He said a more effective law enforcement response would involve bringing cases against dealers at the highest levels — the people bringing drugs into Baton Rouge.

Last week, Moore released a comprehensive list of dropped charges after prosecutors were instructed to review pending cases based on testimony from the two detectives accused of criminal wrongdoing. The list includes 115 defendants and more than 600 individual charges.

"We are basically wholesale dismissing cases. Look at the numbers. This is a s*** show for us," Moore said. "The bigger question is how far back do we go: When did all this start?"

Additional dismissals are expected amid a widening corruption probe. After two detectives were arrested — one accused of buying stolen property and the other stealing marijuana seized as evidence — BRPD leaders transferred four narcotics supervisors to street patrols, effectively cutting the division in half and removing its leadership. Officials declined to comment on whether additional arrests or discipline sentences are expected.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said he suspended normal operations of the narcotics division pending the outcome of an internal audit that will reveal the extent of the problems: "Were there warning signs? Were there supervisory issues? What did we miss?"

He said it would be premature to comment on likely changes, but promised that some areas for improvement have already been identified.

Paul, who once served as narcotics commander for Louisiana State Police, said there are clear best practices for drug investigations: Detectives should focus on getting large-scale dealers off the streets through "disrupting and dismantling violent criminal organizations."

He said so-called "street-level" drug offenses should fall under the purview of the BRPD street crimes division, freeing up narcotics detectives to focus on more sophisticated investigations. Though officers will sometimes make lower level arrests to get defendants to cooperate with law enforcement and build better cases, Paul said targeting drug addicts should never be the final goal.

He said he repeatedly communicated that message to the BRPD narcotics division since taking office in 2018. The ongoing investigations will reveal how closely detectives followed his instructions.

"Let me be clear: I am not concerned with quantity in numbers. I'm concerned with quality," he said in an interview Monday. "The intent is to reduce violence."

The issues in the narcotics division remained in the dark until one detective, Jeremiah Ardoin, was issued a misdemeanor summons in December for buying stolen electronics. While facing charges of his own, Ardoin accused his colleague Jason Acree of even more egregious misconduct: stealing marijuana seized during narcotics busts and giving it to a friend.

BRPD internal investigators found evidence to support that accusation, and Acree was arrested several weeks later. He was booked into jail on possession with intent to distribute marijuana and malfeasance in office.

The majority of the dropped cases involve Acree, who was responsible for a high volume of arrests.

Of the 115 defendants whose cases were dismissed, about a third were facing simple possession charges — not possession with intent to distribute, additional gun charges, obstruction of justice or other aggravating factors, court records show.

Some defendants were arrested for possessing as little as $2 worth of crack cocaine. Others had no criminal history or were caught with drugs after being pulled over for minor traffic violations like an illegal U-turn or failing to use a turn signal.

"We like to have more substantial cases — more drugs being sold, more long-term investigations and arrests of drug dealers, not drug users," Moore said. "The goal should always be to find the source."

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However, many narcotics arrests result from police receiving citizen complaints about drug activity in their neighborhoods, officials said. In those cases, of course officers are obligated to respond and take action.

"Law enforcement is in a difficult position," Moore said. "Oftentimes they act on what they are given."

While the data suggests an overall lack of major long-term investigations, Moore said it would be a mistake to overlook the public safety implications of dropping some of these charges. More than two dozen of the cases involved gun charges such as felon in possession, illegal carrying of weapons with drugs, or possession of a stolen firearm, court records show.

"I understand that sometimes the general public sees many narcotics offenses as nonviolent, but when you add guns to the mix, these activities often become violent and involve violent people," Moore said.

He said his assistant district attorneys were instructed to seriously consider sacrificing some cases, even the more substantial ones, in hopes of maintaining public trust in the justice system. But that does not mean prosecutors believe "there was wrongdoing in every case, or even the majority, but that under the circumstances we should not go forward."

Even the most substantial cases on the list pale in comparison to two recent narcotics investigations led by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office targeting heroin and fentanyl distribution rings.

The first bust last month yielded $1.5 million in drugs and cash, 12 guns and four ballistic vests. Officials said the investigation started with detectives conducting controlled buys from "lower-level distribution locations" run by the same dealer, then obtaining search warrants at five different properties. Five people were arrested in that case.

The second bust, which occurred several days later, yielded 40 pounds of heroin alone — worth an estimated $1.3 million — along with fentanyl and other drugs, which were found when detectives searched an apartment and a storage unit off Sherwood Forest Drive.

In announcing the investigations, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said he was proud of his detectives for taking a massive amount of dangerous drugs off the streets. "So many … violent crimes, homicides and overdoses are linked to the distribution of drugs such as these," he said.

In addition to revealing a high volume of narcotics cases, the list of dropped charges includes a high percentage of Black defendants: 90 out of 115, or almost 80 percent. Baton Rouge is about 55 percent African American, according to 2019 population data.

While the data is based on cases brought by two detectives, not comprehensive or reflective of the entire BRPD narcotics division, some critics argue the numbers are indicative of a larger problem.

When Ardoin was accused of buying stolen property and placed on leave from the department pending an internal investigation, he wrote a memo detailing allegations of widespread corruption and racial bias inside the narcotics division. Before his arrest, Ardoin was the only Black officer in the 12-person division, according to his attorney.

"The narcotics division has specifically targeted the urban community," he wrote in the memo, describing how supervisors would sometimes have detectives patrol Black neighborhoods and approach residents without probable cause, then pat them down in search of drugs or weapons.

Alaina Bloodworth, social justice chair for the Baton Rouge NAACP, said that given those allegations, she finds it "deeply saddening but also unsurprising that the majority of persons released as a result of these dismissals are men and women of color."

"Predominantly Black neighborhoods have always been overpoliced when it comes to surveillance and social control, and underpoliced when it comes to social services," she said.

Chief Paul said his administration will scrutinize how individual detectives have been approaching the job, in addition to studying their collective impact on the communities they serve. In the meantime, he cautioned against painting the whole narcotics division — or the whole police department — with the same broad brush.

"I understand the concern from the public when something like this happens," he said. "But I want people to be assured that we're investigating this properly — and that the allegations do not represent the vast majority of men and women serving on the Baton Rouge Police Department."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.