New Orleans Photojournalist and Editorial Photographer Edmund D. Fountain - Policing in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana
Evangeline's Witnesses: How the Trump Administration Went Easy on Small-Town Police Abuses
The Obama Justice Department thought Ville Platte, Louisiana — where officers jail witnesses to crimes — could become a model of how to erase policing abuses that plague small towns across the nation. Jeff Sessions decided not to bother.
In December of 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on policing in Ville Platte, Louisiana 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.
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 2018, 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.”
In 2016, Bobby Lewis, pictured, then 12 years old, was detained for hours without a parent or lawyer present.
Text by Ian MacDougall