(Getty/Nicholas Kamm)

How the Trump administration went easy on small-town police abuses

Ville Platte, Louisiana could have become a model of how to erase policing abuses that plague small towns


follow us in feedly
Ian MacDougall
August 30, 2018 9:09PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on ProPublica.
new Propublica logo

On a chilly morning in December 2016, 12-year-old Bobby Lewis found himself sitting in a little room at the police station in Ville Platte, a town of 7,300 in southern Louisiana. He wasn’t sure exactly how long it had been, but the detective grilling him had been at it for some time. Bobby was a middle school student — a skinny kid with a polite demeanor — and though he got in trouble at school from time to time, he wasn’t used to getting treated like this. He was alone, facing the detective without a parent or a lawyer.

A blank piece of paper sat on the table in front of Bobby. He and his friends were thieves, the detective insisted. They sold drugs. They trafficked guns. The detective brushed off Bobby’s denials. She knew what he was up to, and if he didn’t write it all down — inform on his friends and confess to his crimes — she’d charge him. She’d confiscate his dog, Cinnamon, she told him. She’d throw his mother in jail. Bobby was nothing but a “B” and an “MF,” as he later relayed the detective’s words to me, sheepish about repeating them. When his mother finally turned up at the station house, it seemed only to enrage the detective further. “Wipe that fucking smile off your face, and sit up in that fucking chair,” Bobby and his mother recall the detective barking at him.

Advertisement:

Earlier that day, Bobby told me, he had been walking home from a friend’s house when a police cruiser pulled up alongside him. He recognized one of the officers. Her name was Jessica LaBorde, but like most people in Ville Platte, Bobby knew her only as Scrappy. The sobriquet was too fitting not to stick. Profanity prone in the extreme, LaBorde was known for her tinderbox temper and hostile disposition. She styled herself like a Marine drill sergeant — fastidiously pressed police blues, jet-black hair pulled back tight — and she would become Bobby’s interrogator. (LaBorde did not respond to calls or a detailed list of questions about the incident.)

Somebody had put a rock through a window in one of the abandoned houses that litter Ville Platte, and a neighbor had seen three boys taking shelter from the rain under a carport nearby. But, the neighbor later told Bobby’s mother, Charlotte Lewis, he didn’t know which of the boys had thrown the rock. Bobby admitted he had been there but insisted he wasn’t the culprit.

Police need probable cause — evidence sufficient to show there’s a fair likelihood that a person committed a crime — to take someone into custody. Generally, an officer can’t detain somebody just because that person was near the scene of a crime. “Mere propinquity,” the U.S. Supreme Court has written, “does not, without more, give rise to probable cause.” Whether LaBorde didn’t know that or didn’t care, she ordered Bobby into the back of her squad car.

LaBorde didn’t call Bobby’s mother to tell her that her 12-year-old was in custody, according to a complaint Lewis later filed with the police department. But eventually another officer did. Lewis says she told the officer not to let anybody question her son until she got there. She had to wait out a morning downpour before she could walk to the station house.

Lewis was familiar with LaBorde’s rough reputation. Still, she told me, she was shocked by how her son was treated. “She cussed him out like he’s a stray dog,” she said. “It’s like my child is a convict or a criminal.” After two hours of pressing Bobby fruitlessly, LaBorde finally let him go — but not before charging him with criminal mischief, police records show. (A judge later dismissed the charge, Lewis told me; a friend admitted throwing the rock.)

Two weeks later, on Dec. 19, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on policing in Ville Platte and surrounding Evangeline Parish. The investigation found that, for decades, the city Police Department and the parish Sheriff’s Office maintained an unwritten policy of jailing people without probable cause — for days and even weeks at a time — to pressure them to cooperate with law enforcement. These “investigative holds” ensnared anybody who might know something about criminal activity, from a suspect to a potential witness to a suspect’s relatives. As the Justice Department report put it, “Literally anyone in Evangeline Parish or Ville Platte could be arrested and placed ‘on hold’ at any time.” Many were. From 2012 to 2014 alone, the police unlawfully held at least 700 people in Ville Platte — close to a tenth of the town’s residents.

That, the report concluded, amounted to “a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct.” To end this cycle of abuses, the report prescribed an array of institutional changes to eliminate investigative holds, such as imposing new department protocols and overhauling training regimens.

The case wasn’t merely about Ville Platte. The Justice Department lawyers viewed it as a template. Similar policing practices exist in scores of towns and villages across the country, and Justice Department officials selected Ville Platte precisely because it was a pure embodiment of a widespread problem. They hoped it would provide a model for reform at other police departments.

Advertisement:

Justice Department officials planned to negotiate a consent decree — a long-term reform plan supervised by a federal judge — with local officials. Systemic police reform was a defining feature of the Obama-era Justice Department, which considered judicial oversight key to dislodging unlawful practices as firmly entrenched as investigative holds were in Ville Platte.

But Jeff Sessions, who took office as attorney general just months after the Justice Department report, has a different view. He considers his predecessors’ reform efforts, particularly via consent decree, to be gross federal overreach that denigrates and demoralizes police. Sessions all but declared that the Justice Department was getting out of the business of meaningful police reform. There would be no consent decree in Ville Platte. Instead, the result is what former Justice Department officials say is an anemic reform plan, announced in June, that largely leaves the future of policing there to the police.

There’s little reason, they say, to expect that this plan will induce law enforcement in Ville Platte to change its ways. The town’s policing culture is defined by arbitrary arrest and detention — and it has been for a long time. It’s a culture that’s proven intensely resistant to change. “You do what you know,” one former Ville Platte police official told me. “And that’s all they know.”

* * *

Advertisement:

When Neal Lartigue joined the Ville Platte Police Department in 1991, investigative holds were part of his training. “I’ve been here 27 years, and that was going on before I started,” he told me when I visited Ville Platte early this year. The practice was never enshrined in any manual, but it was as good as official policy at both the department and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office, which is headquartered in Ville Platte. (For its part, the Sheriff’s Office didn’t have a policy manual at all until last year.)

Lartigue rose to become the Police Department’s narcotics officer, and in that role, he was a regular practitioner of investigative holds, according to a former police official who worked with him during that time. Lartigue would “put people in jail” — people he thought might be drug users or small-time dealers — “and he’d make them sit there, and say: ‘You gonna tell me something? I know you ain’t got the drugs, but you’re getting them from somebody. Who you getting them from?’” the former police official told me.

It was an unnerving experience. Lartigue is an intimidating figure — a stern, laconic man with a shaved head and a stout frame. If his detainee pleaded ignorance, the former official said, Lartigue’s response was inevitably, “Well, then you’re gonna sit in jail till you decide you want to talk.” (Lartigue did not respond to requests for comment on his practices as an officer.)

Nothing had changed by 2006, when Lartigue was elected chief of police, a position he holds today. Investigative holds remained a basic policing tool in Ville Platte, like dusting for fingerprints or mapping a crime scene. According to the Justice Department report and former local law enforcement officials, the purpose of most investigative holds was to obtain information from a reticent subject: a confession from a suspect, details from a potential witness, denunciations from a prospective informant. On occasion, the point was simpler: to keep a suspect from getting in the way while a detective gathered enough evidence to support an arrest warrant, the probable cause needed to arrest the suspect in the first place. Age was no limiting factor. The Justice Department found more than two dozen instances in which juveniles were subjected to investigative holds.

Detainees — even those suspected of no wrongdoing — were strip-searched, booked and thrown in a jail cell, without access to a phone or a lawyer. The intermittent interrogations that followed, the Justice Department noted in its report, carried out “under the threat of continued, secret, indefinite detention,” raised the specter of “coerced statements or false confessions” and, worse, “improper criminal convictions.”

Advertisement:

In 1991, the year Lartigue became a patrolman, the Supreme Court held that if police make an arrest without a warrant, they have to get a judge to verify that the arrest was based on probable cause “as soon as is reasonably feasible, but in no event later than 48 hours after arrest.” Police are not allowed, the high court said, to delay going to a judge “for the purpose of gathering additional evidence to justify the arrest.” Yet, investigative holds were unilateral in Ville Platte; judges were never asked to determine whether each arrest and detention was in line with the law.

Local officials maintain that the holds were an innocent outgrowth of parochialism. “We never intended to violate anyone’s constitutional rights,” Lartigue told local media after the Justice Department issued its 2016 report. The prevailing belief in Ville Platte, the Justice Department found, was that law enforcement could legally jail anybody for up to 72 hours without probable cause — a view of the law that had been wrong for more than half a century.

Ville Platte is a deeply isolated place. It sits on the upper edge of the Cajun Prairie, a plain of humid farmland flecked with palmettos, crawfish ponds and live oak that sprawls north from the marshy cane fields nearer to the Gulf of Mexico. In French, the words “ville platte” mean “flat town,” a name that, legend has it, was conferred by one of Napoleon’s former officers. Passing through in the 1850s, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted lamented the tedium of the region’s “immense moist plain.”

The construction of Interstate 49, in the mid-1980s, bypassed Ville Platte and left it all the more sequestered. Apart from a few annual events, such as the summer Festival de la Viande Boucanée (the Festival of Smoked Meat), Ville Platte has few attractions to draw outsiders. It retains a distinctive sense of place. Gas stations still advertise boudin, cracklin and tasso. It’s not uncommon to run into some locals who speak the regional French dialect.

The other side of Ville Platte’s isolation is its poverty. Little gabled houses of shingle and clapboard are left abandoned to rot and collapse in the Woods, south of Main Street. In Crosstown, on the north side, the Parkview Shopping Center sits nearly tenantless, its vast, empty parking lot a reminder of all the spending power there’s not in Ville Platte. This May, an article in USA Today declared the town the poorest in Louisiana. Its median household income is about $18,700, compared with roughly $59,000 for the U.S. as a whole.

Advertisement:

Ville Platte doesn’t have an organized civil rights community or a legal aid group to investigate policing practices, or any money to fund them. Local criminal defense attorneys might be expected to raise legal challenges to investigative holds, but they, too, thought a person could be held without probable cause for up to 72 hours, former Justice Department officials told me.

Some scoff at the notion that the problem was ignorance alone. There has always been an element within the local law enforcement apparatus, particularly in its upper ranks, that didn’t care what courts and statutes required, say five current and former local law enforcement officials. For that set, the guiding principle was convenience. “We call it the Sovereign State of Evangeline,” one parish resident told me. “Our officials don’t follow the law. They make their own law, and we have to follow it.”

In fact, those officials even flouted their own mistaken view of the law: the 72 hours they believed to be the legal limit on holds. The Justice Department documented “several dozen investigate holds” at the Ville Platte Police Department that “extended for at least a full week.”

* * *

In 2014, attorneys at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which handles police reform cases, received a call from an FBI agent named Steve Krueger. Krueger had been assisting a murder investigation in Ville Platte when he’d learned about investigative holds. The FBI agent had been shocked by the patent illegality of the practice, people familiar with the episode said. He met with Lartigue and his detectives to explain that the holds were unconstitutional. The police chief shrugged off Krueger’s entreaties, according to the Justice Department’s 2016 report.

Advertisement:

Krueger saw firsthand the harm investigative holds did to public safety in Ville Platte. People with information about his murder case had proved uncommonly hesitant to talk to him, he told colleagues. Citizens worried about getting thrown in jail if the police thought they knew anything of value. As the Justice Department’s report put it, decades of arbitrary detention had bred “deep community mistrust and fear of law enforcement.”

Police reform cases rely primarily on a Clinton-era law that Civil Rights Division attorneys often call 14141, for its original designation in the U.S. Code. The law empowers the Justice Department to investigate and sue law enforcement agencies when they “engage in a pattern or practice of conduct” that deprives people of their civil rights.

In 2009, Tom Perez took the helm at the Civil Rights Division and began to breathe new life into 14141, several former Justice Department officials say. (Perez is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.) The Bush administration had largely sidelined police reform, favoring out-of-court settlement agreements when they entered into agreements at all. The federal government, Bush said, shouldn’t be “a separate internal affairs division.”

After studying earlier cases, Perez’s team became convinced that a court-enforceable consent decree was far more likely to produce meaningful change in most instances. Given the time reform can take, “you need to have a sustained effort, and that needs to be supported and backed up by a judge, a federal judge who’s got the authority to force people to comply with their obligations,” said Jonathan Smith, who led the section that handles police reform from 2010 to 2015.

A consent decree contains a set of institutional changes a police department has agreed to make, after negotiations with the Justice Department. A judge approves the agreement and oversees the reform process, usually assisted by an independent monitoring team. Intransigent police officials risk being held in contempt of court or even prosecuted. The judge lifts the consent decree only after the department has restructured its practices and ended its abuses. This typically occurs several years after the decree was put in place.

Advertisement:

A growing (albeit not unanimous) body of empirical evidence suggests consent decrees measurably improve police practices. But nobody argues they’re a panacea. “Consent decrees don’t turn departments into A+ departments,” said Christy Lopez, the supervisor for the Civil Rights Division’s police-reform attorneys during the Obama administration. But, she added, “if, after a consent decree, a department is still a C-, it sure makes a big difference for the people who were living with an F department.”

Perez and his successor, Vanita Gupta, had an ambitious vision for what 14141 could achieve. They targeted common types of police misconduct and designed consent decrees to be templates for reform at other departments. “They became models for a set of best practices across the field,” Gupta told me. Another innovation was bringing local communities into the reform process. It was their rights police had violated, and they would be the ones to hold police accountable after a consent decree was lifted.

By the time Krueger placed his call to Washington, in 2014, the small group of attorneys handling 14141 cases had their hands full. In all, the Obama Justice Department would enter into 14 consent decrees, more than twice as many as the Bush and Clinton administrations combined.

But Ville Platte struck supervisors as worth the time commitment. Moving law enforcement there away from investigative holds — an egregious example of a fairly widespread policing practice — could guide improvements at other police forces that used such tactics.

Lawyers at the Civil Rights Division had received reports of similar practices throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as parts of Florida. “The problem in Ville Platte is very common throughout the South,” Smith said. Indeed, court records showed the problem extended across the U.S., from Texas to Michigan and Georgia to Montana. “You would constantly see judges dropping footnotes: ‘I’m not really sure about the constitutionality of this practice, but nobody raised it,’” a former Justice Department official told me. “So, we need to raise it.”

Advertisement:

In April 2015, the Justice Department announced an investigation into whether the use of investigative holds in Ville Platte amounted to a pattern or practice of unconstitutional police conduct. In the meantime, the FBI’s Krueger had continued to examine policing practices in the town.

In response to the attention from the FBI, Lartigue told me, he told his officers and detectives that they couldn’t use investigative holds any longer. Instead, there was a new procedure: Before they booked anybody, they needed to write up a statement of probable cause, have it notarized and prepare it to be sent to a judge. In December 2014, the Police Department began to require that its detectives and officers become notaries public. That, Lartigue said, would reduce the time it took after an arrest to get a statement of probable cause notarized and sent to a judge for review. “That was our only issue — the holds — and we quickly, swiftly got rid of it,” he told me. (The Sheriff’s Office instituted similar changes.)

But what Justice Department attorneys found over the next 20 months indicated that serious problems remained. Local detectives still maintained that all they needed to jail somebody was a “hunch,” a “gut instinct” or “a pretty good feeling” that a person knew something about a crime.

Many less senior members of the Ville Platte Police Department acknowledged to Justice Department attorneys that they knew little about proper police procedure. “You haven’t had anybody tell you the right way to do things,” said Jonathon Sparks, a former officer who began working at the Ville Platte Police Department in 2009, when he was 19. “It was only later in life I realized these people’s civil rights were being violated.”

There were no beds, toilets, or running water in Ville Platte’s jail cells. Cut off from the outside world, a person on hold spent nights sleeping on a metal bench or on the concrete floor. A woman named Shawana Deville told the attorneys from Washington about the time police had held her overnight as a potential witness to a shooting. Jail guards ordered her to remove her tampon, and she spent the night sleeping on the floor without one. Lartigue confirmed her detention to Justice Department officials. “I just cried the whole time,” Deville would later tell a local television station.

Advertisement:

Deville is white, but the vast majority of people put on hold were black, former Justice Department officials told me. It wasn’t a simple story of racist white cops, though. Two thirds of Ville Platte’s residents are black, and the local power structure has given ground in recent years to black officials, including the mayor and Lartigue.

But that hasn’t uprooted the old dynamic between power and race. “When we were growing up, there was nothing but white cops, and we thought it was bad,” one black Ville Platte resident, Raymond Anderson, told me. “But when the blacks came in, that didn’t make it easier.” (Anderson’s son is in prison — wrongfully, Anderson contends — for the murder that led police to hold Deville.)

Local residents, as Krueger had seen, feared what law enforcement would do to them if they spoke out. Nevertheless, at a community meeting in September 2015, about 150 people turned up to share their experiences with the Justice Department attorneys. “When you speak up, you are looked at as a trouble maker,” one of them told a local reporter after the meeting. But optimism overcame fear of police retaliation. If they shared their stories, the Justice Department might bring its power and resources to bear on police misconduct in Ville Platte.

As the investigation proceeded, Lartigue told me, he made a few more changes aimed at satisfying the Justice Department — “very few,” he added, to underscore his view that he’d already done all he needed to do. In March 2016, the Police Department revised its policy manual to prohibit detaining witnesses. “Unfortunately,” the policy stated, though the practice is “convenient and effective,” it “can result in civil liability.”

Despite such steps, the legal peril for law enforcement in Ville Platte seemed to be rising as 2016 progressed. The feds weren’t the only ones circling; Louisiana state prosecutors had begun their own investigation. Krueger had retired from the FBI in 2015 — and promptly teamed up with the Louisiana State Inspector General, people familiar with the case said. They eventually brought a case to Jeff Landry, the state’s newly elected attorney general. Landry agreed to open a criminal investigation, with assistance from the FBI, into unlawful detention in Ville Platte.

Advertisement:

* * *

In mid-November 2016, Donald Trump announced that he would nominate Sessions to be his attorney general. The choice didn’t bode well for the Justice Department’s plans in Ville Platte. As a senator, Sessions had made no secret of his antipathy for consent decrees and Obama-era police reform. Critics argued that the Justice Department deployed them too aggressively.

Sessions’ concern, however, wasn’t that police reform by consent decree was overused or ineffective. His problem was with the very premise. He saw consent decrees as unconstitutional federal intrusions into state and local affairs. They “undermine the respect for police officers,” he testified at his January 2017 confirmation hearing, “and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness.”

In its December 2016 report, the Justice Department laid out the changes it anticipated requiring of the Ville Platte Police Department and Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office: They would need to overhaul policies, training procedures, recordkeeping systems and internal accountability mechanisms. The plan was to implement those reforms through a consent decree, former Justice Department officials said, and in early March 2017, Civil Rights Division attorneys traveled to Ville Platte to discuss reforms with community members and local officials.

But on March 31, Sessions issued what many lawyers for the Justice Department saw as the coup de grâce to its police reform efforts. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” the attorney general wrote in an agency-wide memorandum, which ordered a review of contemplated consent decrees. He expanded on his thinking in an Op-Ed in USA Today: “We will not sign consent decrees for political expediency that will cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals.”

In April 2017, the Justice Department made its first endeavor to translate policy into practice — an 11th-hour attempt to scuttle a consent decree with Baltimore’s embattled police department. A judge in Maryland swatted it away. Meanwhile, in Ville Platte, the Justice Department went silent.

* * *

In an interview with a local newspaper right after the Justice Department report was issued, Lartigue compared investigative holds to an old family recipe for boudin sausage. He meant to highlight the lost provenance of the practice. But the analogy was apt in another sense, too. In Ville Platte, the police were used to making their sausage in particular ways, and they wouldn’t be easy to give up. Even townspeople who’d suffered under the holds saw them as a kind of local custom. “Dat just how dey do,” was the refrain I heard, in patois laced with resignation.

In one sense, Lartigue was right that law enforcement in Ville Platte had stopped using investigative holds. There was no longer an open policy of jailing local residents without probable cause. But that didn’t mean local law enforcement had stopped using arbitrary arrest and detention. They hadn’t. As one law enforcement official in Ville Platte put it, “They’re just finding another way.” (“It’s very common,” a former Justice Department official told me, to see unlawful policing practices, in the face of federal scrutiny, “simply morph and take on new forms that are harder to ferret out.”)

On May 15, 2017, Robert Wilson and three friends walked into the Ville Platte police station, a squat, salmon-colored bunker that sits just behind City Hall, at the center of town. Three weeks earlier, a stray bullet had killed a bystander down the street from a housing project where Wilson — who is 22 and goes by his middle name, Marquez — and several friends had been wiling away a Sunday evening. A couple days after the shooting, Marquez’s 19-year-old brother, Tieberrious, was arrested on murder charges.

Now, Marquez had gotten word that detectives wanted to talk to him. At the police station, Marquez was ushered into the office of the chief detective, Steve Deville. A heavyset man with a dark goatee and a low, soft drawl, Deville turned on a tape recorder and asked Marquez to sign a form to confirm he understood his Miranda rights. Marquez panicked when he saw where Deville was asking him to sign. “Why you — why you got it as ‘suspect’?” he asked Deville. “I’m a suspect?” Deville assured him that was just how the form is designed.

Marquez walked Deville through what had happened the night of the shooting, according to a police transcript of the interview. His account largely lined up with what Tieberrious had told detectives the previous month. Marquez had gotten into an argument on the street with a contemporary of his named Santiago Thomas. Afterward, Marquez, Tieberrious, and their companions had gone to a friend’s house to avoid further conflict. Ten or fifteen minutes later, they heard gunshots and ran outside to see Thomas’ car careening down the street.

Deville wasn’t buying it. “I’m not saying that you are lying,” he told Marquez. “But if you are, I want to just explain something to you, okay? If you are, then there’s nothing that we can do to help later on.” Marquez insisted he was telling the truth.

After 14 minutes, Deville turned off his tape recorder. But, according to Marquez, the interrogation didn’t end: “If you lie to me again, I’m going to lock you up,” Deville told him. Marquez again insisted that he wasn’t lying. “All right,” Deville said. “We’re gonna see if you’re lying.”

Deville led him to a holding cell. “I was terrified,” Marquez told me. Deville said he’d find out soon enough if Marquez’s story matched the recollections of the friends who’d come with him to the police station. Marquez took a seat on a metal bench and waited. He’d grown up in Beaumont, Texas, and he wasn’t used to how the police operated in Ville Platte. He’d never been to jail before, he told me.

When I later reached Deville by phone, he denied having put Marquez in a jail cell. “After he gave us the recorded statement, we walked him straight back to the front lobby, where he waited for everybody to finish, and they left together,” Deville told me. But the friends who accompanied Marquez to the station house that day recall things differently. One of them, Ebony Soileau, said she doesn’t remember seeing Marquez after he went to be interviewed, and Marquez later told another friend, Shawn Thomas, that “they had him in the back,” Thomas said, a reference to the police station’s jail.

Marquez didn’t know this, but Deville had a reason to lean on him. The detective had next to no evidence against Tieberrious. In three weeks — with a woman dead, Tieberrious in jail and memories growing no sharper — police had collected statements from only two witnesses, according to Deville’s official summary of his investigation. Neither witness had seen Tieberrious fire a gun.

Two hours later, Marquez told me, Deville opened the cell door. Deville had interviewed his friends. His story checked out. He was free to go.

This, three former Ville Platte police officials told me, is one of the tactics that has come to replace investigative holds at the police department. In this case the hold is unofficial and it’s shorter, rarely lasting more than a day. “They would bring them in and make the person think they’re being arrested,” one of the former police officials said. The detainee was never actually booked into the jail, and the absence of a paper trail made it harder to prove that somebody had been illegally detained.

“The longer-term holds — the overnight holds — stopped by 2016,” Jonathon Sparks, one of the former officers, said. After leaving the Ville Platte Police Department in late 2009 and working at other law-enforcement agencies in southwestern Louisiana, he’d returned in 2016, hoping to find that things had changed. They hadn’t, and he left after a few months. “They were still bringing people in during the day,” Sparks said. “They were very much holding them with no charges and no warrants — just smoke and mirrors.” The tactic remained in regular use for several months after the Justice Department issued its report, said another former officer, Natosha Murphy, who worked at the Police Department until summer 2017.

Lartigue disputed these accounts. “That never happened,” he said. (Murphy is suing Lartigue and the department, alleging she was forced to resign after she contacted state and federal authorities to reveal illegal conduct at the department.)

Often, Murphy and Sparks told me, detectives hold their quarries in the station house breakroom, where the surveillance cameras don’t work. Sometimes, as Marquez learned firsthand, detectives transfer them to a jail cell for a few hours to scare them into talking.

To compel reluctant Ville Platte residents to go with police to the station house — without actually arresting them — detectives developed a separate set of dubious tactics. “You say you’re going to arrest them for interfering with an investigation for not talking or you say, ‘We have a warrant on you,’” Murphy told me. “Ninety percent of the time, there’s no warrant.” (Courts let police lie about a lot of things but not about having a warrant.) When I asked Deville, the chief detective, about this practice, he was silent.

At times, police took this method a step further. When a detective didn’t have enough evidence to get a judge to approve an arrest, the three former Ville Platte police officials said, the detective filled out a probable cause affidavit and got another officer to notarize it, but never forwarded it to a judge. To the untrained eye, a notarized affidavit could pass for an arrest warrant. Other times, detectives would flash an official-looking document that had nothing to do with the case. “They’d show it to suspects, pretending it was a warrant,” Murphy told me. “A lot of people can’t read or write.”

When I asked him about notarized affidavits doubling as ersatz warrants, Lartigue grew uncharacteristically animated. “No,” he insisted. “That’s a blatant lie. I guarantee you that’s not the case. No.” Three former Ville Platte police officials, including Murphy and Sparks, told me Lartigue was aware of the practices they described. Those who refused to take part, they said, were threatened with professional reprisal.

Sometimes, instead of faking warrants, detectives faked their way to real warrants. The trick was to write — but never issue — a ticket or citation for a fabricated infraction in the name of whomever a detective wanted to talk to, the three former Ville Platte police officials told me. Detectives could get an arrest warrant on the basis of the unissued ticket. A popular choice of infraction was fleeing from the police, Murphy and Sparks told me. “The person might not have been doing anything. They might have been at their house,” Sparks said. Lartigue denied the existence of this practice, too. Deville hung up on me when I asked him about it.

By the time Lartigue and I spoke in late February, he hadn’t heard from the Justice Department in nearly a year. He figured that meant the feds were satisfied with what they’d seen when they visited a year earlier. He maintained that he’d gotten his department right with the law a long time ago. “We corrected it, and we’re sticking to it,” he said. “We’re still operating like we were.”

In Washington, meanwhile, Sessions and his team continued to dismantle the Justice Department’s police-reform programs. During the summer of 2017, they achieved in Chicago what they’d failed to accomplish in Baltimore: stop a consent-decree process initiated by the previous administration.

Despite Sessions’ explicit opposition to consent decrees, attorneys in the Civil Rights Division felt strongly enough about the problems in Ville Platte, according to a Justice Department official, that they drafted a consent decree. Their bosses rejected it.

* * *

The Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office assists the police in Ville Platte, but it chiefly patrols the further-flung parts of the parish, outside its towns. The consensus among residents and those who’ve seen local law enforcement from the inside is that it’s less prone to arbitrary detention than the Ville Platte Police Department. The Justice Department’s report bears that out: It documented about 200 investigative holds at the Sheriff’s Office from 2012 to 2014, compared with about 700 at the Police Department.

Still, unlawful detentions have persisted at the Sheriff’s Office. Detectives and deputies have adapted to the Justice Department probe by holding people by the roadside instead of in the jailhouse, a law enforcement official in Ville Platte told me. “To protect themselves, they strong-arm people on the street,” the official said. It’s relatively easy to avoid documenting a catch-and-release-style street stop.

One Saturday in mid-February, Leeann Fontenot witnessed a friend steal a truck. Later that night, she offered to give a statement to deputies from the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office, but they weren’t interested, she told me a few days later.

Fontenot drifts between the homes of friends and relatives. “I’m actually homeless,” she told me. Her warbling Cajun accent betrays hints of a hard Texan “r,” the result of a childhood crisscrossing Texas and Louisiana with her mother. Several run-ins with the law have made it difficult to find steady work, she says. When we spoke, she was staying at a house just outside Ville Platte. Rusted gardening implements and propane tanks cluttered the front porch. Two metal crosses and what looked like part of an animal skull hung beside the front door.

By Sunday evening — the day after the truck theft — the sheriff’s deputies had seemingly changed their minds. Fontenot and a friend had just pulled into the driveway of another house where she sometimes stayed when her friend’s pickup truck filled with pulsing light. Two deputies ordered Fontenot and her friend, Jeff Fontenot, out of the truck. (The pair aren’t related; the surname Fontenot is to Ville Platte what Smith is to the rest of the country.)

One of the deputies took her aside. Fontenot is 26, but she looks a decade younger; she’s barely 5 feet tall and slight. The deputy handcuffed her nevertheless. “Where’s the truck?” he asked. Fontenot said she didn’t know.

As the deputy began searching her pockets, Fontenot says she asked him to stop and call a female officer, but the plea went unheeded. She wasn’t wearing a belt, and as the deputy shoved his hands into her pockets, she told me, her shorts began to slide down her thigh. When she asked the deputy to pull them back up, he told her to wait. The deputy went through her cell phone, Fontenot says, without her permission. (Under a 2013 Supreme Court decision, police need a warrant or permission for such a search.)

Fontenot was perplexed. The deputy, whose name she didn’t catch, had seen her the night before. “Why y’all doing all this?” she asked. “Y’all saw me last night.” The deputy called her a liar. “It happens all the time,” Fontenot told me later — law enforcement stopping her on the street for no reason other than to press her for information.

In the meantime, the other sheriff’s deputy, Eric Frugé, had taken Jeff behind his police cruiser. Frugé patted him down but didn’t cuff him. When the deputy searched Jeff’s truck, he found a small amount of marijuana. Fontenot admitted it was hers.

The deputies ordered her to come in the following morning, a Monday, and tell them where the stolen truck was. Otherwise, they’d charge her with marijuana possession and grand theft auto. The second charge confused her; it was her friend who’d stolen the truck. (Jeff corroborated key details of Fontenot’s account but was standing a squad car’s length away from her, so he didn’t know whether the deputy had searched Fontenot’s phone or threatened to charge her. The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a detailed set of questions. In response to questions sent to Frugé via Facebook, the deputy responded with an emoji of an angry face.)

Fontenot didn’t go to the sheriff’s office that Monday. She didn’t know where the truck was, but more to the point, she was afraid of what might happen to her. She’d been subjected to an investigative hold before, she told me. “I don’t want them to put me on another hold.”

* * *

On Feb. 27, 2018, after nearly a year of silence, a lawyer from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sent an email to Eric LaFleur, a powerful state senator who moonlights as the Ville Platte city attorney. The Justice Department, the attorney wrote, had “prepared a proposal to address the findings” in its December 2016 report.

Arthur Sampson, arguably the only civil rights activist in Ville Platte, had been a key community liaison. But he was caught by surprise when I told him I’d learned Justice Department attorneys were coming to town in March. The Trump administration had eliminated from the discussions the local community whose rights its police-reform work was meant to protect. “How can they know what we need when they’re not meeting with the community?” Sampson said. (A Civil Rights Division official said community input obtained earlier in the process “played an important role.”)

It wasn’t initially a happy moment for local officials, either. I called Lartigue in March to ask about the negotiations. “You’ll have to ask the Justice Department,” he said curtly, before hanging up on me.

The tenor would soon change. When I spoke with LaFleur a couple of weeks later, he was evasive about the details of the agreement. But he chuckled and said: “We’re happy with what they’re recommending.”

By June 4, it was official: There would be no consent decree and no federal judge to ensure compliance. Instead, the Justice Department announced a pair of out-of-court settlement agreements with the Ville Platte Police Department and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“This is a way to basically allow these departments to go forward just as they were before,” said Roy Austin, who oversaw the department’s police-reform docket from 2010 to 2014. Austin was troubled by the lack of a local independent monitor, a regular feature of Obama-era reform agreements. Combined with the lack of judicial oversight, that meant “there’s no one to hold them accountable in any formal way,” Austin said. “It’s very hard to hide things from a true monitoring team, as compared to hiding things from someone who can’t be there all the time.”

The Justice Department disagreed, calling the agreements “stringent.” “The Justice Department monitors and assesses the compliance” of the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office “on a basis similar to an independent monitor team, and reserves the right to take appropriate legal action if we determine that both parties are not in substantial compliance or have not worked in good faith to achieve substantial compliance,” Justice Department spokesperson Kelly Laco said. Laco did not explain what led the department to reject the recommendation of the attorneys working on the case to implement a consent decree.

The Justice Department will superintend reforms from 1,000 miles away in Washington. The difficulty isn’t just distance. Even in the best of circumstances, “these cases are really time intensive and very difficult to do,” Austin said. These weren’t the best of circumstances. The Civil Rights Division’s police-reform group has lost a quarter of its staff attorneys during the Trump administration, and those who remain have told former colleagues they’ve grown more deferential in their dealings with local law enforcement. They don’t believe the political leadership will back them if disputes arise.

The settlement terms themselves mostly retained only a faint outline of what past agreements would have required. For example, there was a section called “Community Engagement,” which in earlier agreements contained detailed requirements for improving and monitoring police-community relations, sometimes even obligating cities to establish civilian oversight bodies. In the Ville Platte agreements, the section consisted of a single short paragraph calling for a “public education effort.” What does that mean in practice? In early August came the apparent answer: The Police Department held its first “Police and Community Together Fun Day,” an event advertised as featuring face painting, a dunking booth and “LoLo the Clown.”

The “outcome assessments” that determine when the agreements are satisfied — usually carried out by an independent monitor under a consent decree — are now self-assessments. “The city is coming up with the metrics, measuring its own compliance with the metrics, and then the parties are deciding on that basis whether the police get out of the agreement,” a former Justice Department official said. “It undermines the whole purpose of the agreement.”

Lartigue seemed content with the settlement. As he told a local publication, it amounts to “just a few more documents.” Indeed, the types of reforms the agreements emphasize — “clear policy guidance”; “thorough documentation” of arrests, detentions and interrogations; “supervisory oversight” — amount to just a few more documents if nobody’s making sure they amount to more than that.

Policy, for example, is easily flouted. What happened to Leeann Fontenot, Bobby Lewis and Marquez Wilson was already forbidden by policy. It happened anyway. (This year, after a judge ordered Marquez’s brother released from jail for lack of evidence, prosecutors charged Marquez in his place. He has pleaded not guilty, and it’s unclear whether the evidence is any less shaky this time around.) And supervisory oversight is of dubious value if the supervisors themselves — the detectives — are the chief perpetrators of the misconduct.

The settlement agreements did change at least one thing in Ville Platte: It raised the likelihood that no police official will be held individually accountable for illegally detaining the town’s citizens. For more than two years, the Louisiana attorney general’s office and the FBI had been collecting evidence of criminal wrongdoing by officials at the Ville Platte Police Department, according to several people familiar with the case. “Their file is like this,” said one person who had spoken repeatedly with investigators, gesturing to indicate a stack of documents a foot high.

All of that fizzled after the Justice Department unveiled its deal. The press release announcing the agreements lauded police officials: they had “cooperated fully throughout this matter, and we are eager to continue to work together,” it read. Investigators saw the agreement as lenient, according to people who have spoken with them.

The Louisiana attorney general’s office felt it was untenable to recommend the indictment of officials at a police department the Justice Department had publicly praised and, in the view of investigators, had let off the hook with a lax settlement agreement. That, two people familiar with the decision say, led the office to conclude that it had to close the criminal investigation. (The attorney general’s office and FBI declined to comment. The Justice Department’s Laco said the agreement “does not in any way preclude or prevent any law enforcement agency from taking criminal action against an individual under any other law.”)

In Ville Platte, as news of the agreements spread, a familiar fatalism settled on the town. Residents had taken risks sharing their stories because the federal government had promised change. Nobody from the Justice Department had come to explain what the agreements purported to do — another past practice jettisoned — but locals had a pretty good idea that the federal government wasn’t living up to its side of the bargain. After talk of a lawsuit and a federal judge, they got watered-down agreements brokered in secret. “A lot of people stuck their necks out on the promise that the Justice Department was going to do something and that change was coming,” said a former official there who had been involved in the case. “And then they didn’t do anything — they soft-shoed it instead.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

Top Trending

Check out the major news stories of the day


Ian MacDougall

MORE FROM Ian MacDougall

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •