The report alleged the Ville Platte Police Department and Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office routinely arrested people they believed may have information about ongoing criminal investigations and placed them in holding cells for several days at a time, refusing to allow them to call family members or employers.
“When police officers investigate criminal activity, they must do so responsibly and within the boundaries of the law,” Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “The violations we found in Ville Platte and Evangeline Parish demonstrate a disturbing pattern of officers overstepping legal boundaries.”
Over the course of the year-and-a-half long probe, DOJ officials toured both departments; obtained and reviewed all department policies and booking logs; and interviewed law enforcement officers and city officials, as well as community members who were the subjects of what the agency described as unconstitutional “holds.”
The report found that between 2012-2014, law enforcement officials in Evangeline Parish, where 29 percent of the the 33,578 residents are black, arrested over 200 individuals through the procedure. The numbers were even starker in the parish seat of Ville Platte, where 64 percent of residents are black. During the same period, DOJ found Ville Platte police initiated over 700 arrests using “unconstitutional holds” in a city of only 7,303 residents.
The details of the investigation are deeply unsettling. In one particularly striking 2014 incident highlighted in the report, a Ville Platte woman told the DOJ that she was shopping for groceries when the store was held up in an armed robbery and shots were fired. She told a police officer who stopped her that she didn’t see the robbery and had no information about the incident. Yet after she returned home, another officer came to her door and took her, her boyfriend and a 16-year-old staying at their house into custody.
“Officers strip-searched the woman, who was menstruating at the time, and forced her to remove her tampon,” the report states.
The woman was held for nine hours in a room with no beds and no access to sanitary products before being questioned by detectives and the district attorney, according to the report. Her boyfriend and the juvenile were also held for hours, although none of the three individuals were “suspected of having any connection to the robbery or shooting.” The report states those holds were "not even ostensibly supported by probable cause."
The report states both Ville Platte and Evangeline Parish detectives acknowledged to the DOJ that they used investigative holds where they lacked "sufficient evidence to make an arrest, but instead had a ‘hunch’ or ‘feeling’ that a person may be involved in criminal activity.”
Detectives made use of the time that these individuals were held to gather more information about the case and develop a probable cause for arresting them in the first place, according to the report. Under those parameters, the report noted, “literally anyone in Evangeline Parish or Ville Platte could be arrested and placed ‘on hold’ at any time.”
Law enforcement officials also explicitly told the DOJ that they used the holds to obtain incriminating statements, according to the report. Rudimentary recordkeeping prevented the DOJ from determining whether or how often the practice was used to obtain coerced statements or false confessions, but the practice did lead to false charges in at least one case.
One woman interviewed by the DOJ said she was called by a Ville Platte officer in 2015 and told to bring her two children, aged one and five, to the police station so she could be questioned about an armed robbery. Detectives “interrogated the five-year-old outside of the woman’s presence” while she was kept in a holding cell, and held the children for several hours before allowing the woman’s mother to pick them up, according to the report. After 72 hours spent sleeping on the floor of a holding cell, the woman was booked on charges of armed robbery that were later dismissed.
“To this day, the woman has no idea why VPPD arrested her in connection with this crime,” the report reads.
The report states that since DOJ opened its investigation in April 2015, both agencies have acknowledged that “investigative holds” are unconstitutional and taken steps to address the practice. Ville Platte police and Evangeline Parish sheriff's leadership have issued directives to officers not to use holds, and now require “probable cause affidavits” to be completed and filed to criminal court judges when individuals are booked.
Still, DOJ officials say much remains to be done to repair the community’s profound mistrust of local law enforcement and to ensure that officers are re-trained with clearly defined detention and interrogation techniques.
Both the Ville Platte Police Department and Evangeline Parish Sheriff's Office said no spokespeople were available Tuesday to respond to TPM’s repeated requests for comment.
Read the full DOJ investigation below: