In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., law enforcement agencies nationwide are embracing body cams for officers. It's time Lafayette follows suit.
Photo Illustration by Robin May
A Lafayette deputy marshal wears a headset camera, one of two types of such devices the marshal's office uses to record both video and audio.
[Editor's note: The Lafayette Police Department did not respond to questions before press time for this cover story. The questions primarily focused on the use of body cameras in law enforcement locally and on allegations made by Lafayette attorney Jeff Speer. Questions were submitted to the department a week in advance of the story‘s deadline, and a response was received a day after the story published. Click here for the department's response, and here, here, here, here and here for supplemental materials provided by the department.]
Shane Duplechin and Trey Prevost are good cops. And like most of the men and women wearing the badge in Acadiana, they're good people too. Both have dedicated their lives to law enforcement. It's a hard job, dangerous, long hours spent away from home and young families.
I recently caught a glimpse into the world of a police officer through the eyes of Duplechin and Prevost, riding shotgun on a shift with each officer.
After spending 14 years as an Internal Affairs investigator with the Lafayette Police Department, Prevost took a promotion in recent years. It means night shifts, 6 p.m. till 6 a.m.; with a wife and young daughters back at home, it's not easy. But that‘s the job, says Prevost.
Prevost is a sergeant who heads a group of patrol officers in Lafayette's Precinct Three, a big chunk of the city stretching from Kaliste Saloom and Johnston Street all the way to the city limits heading west toward Vermilion Parish. It's a quiet night as Prevost rides us through his precinct, but with photographer Robin May in the backseat itching for some action, we get the OK to check out the scene of a shooting on Saint Antoine Street in Precinct One.
As we head over, Prevost says in his 17 years in law enforcement he's never had to discharge his firearm in the line of duty. "Some officers go their whole career without having to, but it does happen," says Prevost.
When we arrive at Saint Antoine, flashing blue lights fill the dark street, and four bikes are scattered in the grass along the fence line of a cemetery as several officers talk with a male teenager who sits along the sidewalk with his hands cuffed. It turns out he's only 14, one of the officers on the scene tells Prevost. Earlier in the day, the 14-year-old and several friends — three other teens who‘d already been given seats in the backs of patrol cars upon our arrival — stole a handgun, and upon nightfall, the group took off on bikes firing a number of shots into the air as they made their way up Saint Antoine.
Like Prevost, Duplechin is also a father with another one on the way any day now. Duplechin's been in law enforcement 13 years, all as a deputy with the city marshal's office. Duplechin shares one other similarity with Prevost: He too has never had to fire his weapon while in the line of duty. There is, however, one big difference between the two officers. In a way it's cosmetic, but ultimately it represents another layer of protection should the day ever come when either officer is forced to break his streak of never pulling the trigger while on the job.
It's a small, black, plastic camera, no bigger than a pager, that Duplechin attaches to his chest before heading out on each shift. Lafayette City Marshal's deputies have been using the cams — which also have high-quality audio — for just over a year, and for Duplechin it's become another tool of the trade.
The city marshal deputies are in fact the only law enforcement officers in Lafayette currently wearing body cams.
"I love it," says Duplechin. "It sees what I see. In police work, you're going to come into situations that you'll wish you had a camera, and it just gives us another tool to use for gathering more evidence."
During our ride, it quickly becomes evident Duplechin loves his job. In fact, he can't imagine doing anything else, he says, as we head to the last known address of a man with a missed court date and an alcohol problem (which I gather based on the number and types of arrests he's racked up in recent years). Duplechin parks a few houses from where the court thinks the man lives, and joins up with the two other deputy marshals riding with his team that day. Guns drawn, they check out the perimeter of the house then go in for a knock.
Nobody answers. After learning from one of the neighbors that he'd been arrested for something else, Duplechin looks through his stack of warrants for another good candidate to pay a surprise visit, and we're off again to our next location.
Between each of the locations we hit during the warrant round-up — with most of the addresses located in the neighborhoods between Downtown Lafayette and the Four Corners area — there was no evidence of an "us versus them" mentality in the way Duplechin approaches the public. It was just the opposite. Repeatedly, he would pull his SUV to the curb to make small talk with various people, knowing many on a first-name basis. It's called community policing: purposefully making eye contact and conversation, which humanizes officers in the eyes of the public while also building trust. Ultimately, this type of approach leads to more cooperation between law enforcement and the public it serves. Even when making an arrest, Duplechin maintains that community policing mentality, allowing a suspect we locate at her boyfriend's apartment an opportunity to have one last cigarette before bringing her in on a parole violation and possibly another three years in jail.
For Lafayette PD's Sgt. Prevost, body cams are not a part of his job. And although the department is still undecided on whether it will implement a full-on body cam program for all officers, it's a near given this is going to happen in the near future. With the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., surrounding the police killing of an unarmed black teen and the riots and mass protests that ensued, the day when all American officers are wearing cams is rapidly approaching. In Ferguson, the police officers went from not having cams to having cams almost immediately after Brown's killing. A petition was also submitted shortly after Brown's death to the U.S. Justice Department calling for the mandatory use of body cams by all law enforcement officers in the country.
_Randle Broussard, left, and Shane Duplechin of the Lafayette City Marshal's Office
The Lafayette PD was the target of criticism over a decision announced in December that Louisiana State Police will no longer be used for investigations of the department's officer shootings. For years, state police have acted as a go-to for local agencies in need of an impartial investigator in these types of cases, although there's no state law requiring them to do so. Yet, the Lafayette PD, despite what seems like a clear conflict of interest, is now leaving these types of investigations up to its newly formed Shoot Team, which comprises officers from within the department who are expected to objectively weigh in on whether a shooting by one of their colleagues was justified.
The number of shootings by Lafayette police officers is now on the rise, according to Prevost, and raises even more questions as to the reasoning behind the department's decision to create the Shoot Team.
"It's definitely become more frequent over the years," says Prevost. "Nowadays, we're averaging about four a year in the city. The reason? I think it's because our society has become more accepting of fighting with police and shooting at the police. TV, video games like Grand Theft Auto, where killing a cop is part of the game. It desensitizes, especially our kids."
Asked his thoughts on wearing a camera, Prevost says he is open to the idea: "I would not be opposed to it. I know some of our officers in the department have started experimenting with the cams. None of my guys have used 'em yet, but I've seen other officers with them on."
Along with the local marshal's office, only three of the more than 40 other law enforcement agencies in Acadiana wear cams, including the Crowley and Eunice police departments and the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office.
Many of the local agencies, like the LPSO, are taking a wait-and-see approach. But ultimately, this technology, especially in the wake of Ferguson, is seen by a growing number as the future of law enforcement. "I agree," says Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom. "Cameras in patrol cars have been in existence for quite some time, and they have been very beneficial. The use of body cameras will build on the knowledge and experience of using car cameras. We are still looking at other agency policies and practices to help us with implementation."
Four different models of the cams are currently undergoing field testing by a number of Neustrom's deputies, yet it's unclear when a decision will be made on implementing an office-wide body cam program.
While Neustrom sees the cams as a benefit to eliminating the doubt from encounters that could otherwise hold the potential for controversy, there are some issues, he says. "The cons are twofold. There's the uncertainty of the position the courts will take on legal questions pertaining to an individual's expectation of privacy, and the costs, not of the cameras, which are reasonable, but the costs associated with the storage of large amounts of data, which will be considerably more expensive than the body cameras and the amount of data that is stored for car cameras."
Two months ago, all 84 officers of the Houma Police Department were outfitted with cams, says Chief Todd Duplantis.
_From left, camera-clad deputies Allan Roger, Randle Broussard and Shane Duplechin of the Lafayette City Marshal's Office attempt to locate a suspect during a warrant roundup.
"My officers are already telling me the people are asking about it, and they're even noticing attitudes from people [filing] complaints are changing for the better," says Duplantis in a recent phone interview with The IND.
This phenomenon has proven true elsewhere, specifically in Rialto, Calif. The Rialto PD, called one of the "most studied" agencies in the country, was the site of one of the first body cam field tests in the country. The year-long experiment resulted in a number of positives, including an 88 percent decrease in citizen complaints against officers and a 60 percent drop in the department's use-of-force incidents. Officers there reported a "psychological change" experienced by both the public and the officers as a result of the cams' presence. At the end of Rialto's experiment, the department ordered 90 more cams, one for every officer.
A poll conducted by The Houma Courier showed that 83 percent of respondents were in favor of officers wearing cams.
And though it's only been about two months, the positives have far outweighed the negatives.
"In any case where there's a potential he-said-she-said, we can use these cameras and get the full story of what occurred," Duplantis notes. "In incidents of a possible public outcry and rioting, this can prevent that, rioting and property and injuries and that‘s what this is all about. We're not doing this to be a Big Brother; we just want the public to have a clear understanding of all the incidents going on out there."
The cams are also saving his officers valuable time; the instant, on-scene recording of witness statements allows officers to remain out on patrol.
"To be honest, in this type of work, I don't see where there are that many cons," says Duplantis. "It's laying it out on the table, this is what happened, this is what we were called for, my guy says this, the public says this. If my guy did wrong, I'll take disciplinary action. If the public's wrong, then we can show them and there's no more need for a riot."
The cams will be particularly valuable in the event one of his officers is forced to use a firearm. "It's kind of hard to investigate yourself for these types of things, it doesn't look good, so if I have an incident, I just call state police," says Duplantis.
As more and more departments across the country have adopted a cam program, one of the biggest critiques has been the lack of policies governing their use. According to a recent poll conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union — an advocate for the proper use of body cams, meaning carefully tailored policies governing their usage by officers — a third of the departments with cams have yet to enact a policy governing even the basics, such as when the cams should be turned on, repercussions for not recording an incident, length of time videos will be stored and precautionary measures to prevent evidence tampering.
Houma, however, does have a policy in place, though, according to Duplantis, it's a living, breathing document, meaning it can be modified if needed.
Following Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, the number of departments wearing body cams has skyrocketed. One distributor reported making more money than ever before in September, roughly a month after the events in Ferguson.
Criminologists and law enforcement insiders are now describing the police killing of Michael Brown as a game-changer, one that will result in a domino effect on America's entire law enforcement system, ultimately tying policing's future with accountability-enhancing technology. This will start with body cams. And from there, who knows?
The New Orleans PD now has a cam program, as do most metro-sized departments in the country. The New York City Police Department has begun issuing cams, although NYPD's program resulted from stop-and-frisk abuses and an order from a federal judge. In Los Angeles, a six-month field test wrapped up in July with positive results and plans for the launch of a full-scale program. But it‘s not just the big agencies, and there's proof of that development right here in Acadiana with agencies even as small as the Crowley Police Department.
Crowley's decision to equip officers with cams was mainly economic. It was time for the department to replace an in-car camera system, and instead of forking over close to $8,000, it secured grant money and bought body cams instead. This is the same reason Houma PD's officers now wear cams as well.
Crowley Police Chief KP Gibson says the cams increase efficiency and make the job easier for everyone, from the officers to the prosecutors to the judges. And as far as the potential for an officer being painted in a negative light, Gibson keeps it matter-of-fact: "Easily put, do the job professionally and lawfully and it can only help."
Many believe Acadiana agencies without a body cam program really need to get with the program; Michael Brown's death at the hands of a police officer was not an isolated event.
These types of events — deadly encounters between police and a member of the public where more questions are raised than answered — happen too often. Here in Lafayette, the last decade has seen a few Michael Browns; just recently there was one in New Iberia.
While these cases haven't sparked the same level of controversy and public outcry, the circumstances are often the same. The most recent event in Lafayette came with the police killing of Quamaine Mason, a young African-American man shot eight times by Lafayette Police Cpl. Martin Faul.
_Sgt. Trey Prevost of the Lafayette PD during a recent ride-along with The IND
Faul was the subject of Daily Advertiser reporter Katie de la Rosa's September investigative report on the Lafayette officers with the worst records of alleged abuse. In Mason's death, witnesses reported that when Faul saw Mason had a gun in his waist band, Faul responded by releasing his K-9 and then firing his gun, all within a split-second. Faul claims he saw Mason, a 21-year-old criminal justice major at UL who'd dreamed of becoming a state trooper, reach for his weapon (which he owned legally). After state police had been called by Chief Jim Craft to investigate the shooting, Faul — at the end of an interview with troopers and after stating he shot Mason after witnessing him reach for his gun — begins asking investigating trooper Frank Garcia several strange questions, apparently unaware a video camera is still recording everything in the room.
In the tape, which was obtained by the Mason family's attorney, Jeff Speer, Faul and Garcia are standing up to leave the room when Faul asks whether Mason really had a gun, and whether they'd determined which hand he used in reaching for it. Garcia answers yes to both questions, but when his report clearing Faul of any wrongdoing is released, no mention is made of Faul's post-interview questions.
In the federal lawsuit filed on the Mason family's behalf, Speer references his deposition with state police investigator Garcia: "Asked to explain his conclusion based on Faul's post-interview questioning, Garcia sidesteps and says something about the movement Faul saw of Mason's hand moving toward a potential gun."
While Speer's lawsuit against Faul and the department was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Richard Haik, the Fifth Circuit is expected to rule on an appeal any day now.
Mason represents just one example of a questionable killing by a Lafayette police officer.
"There is an epidemic of shooting deaths being caused by this local police department. During the approximate six-year term of Chief Craft as police chief of the Lafayette Police Department, there have been approximately 12 shootings, 11 of which have been fatal," Speer claims in the Mason suit. "Despite the allegations by the police department that each and every one of the 11 killings which have occurred over the term of Chief Craft's tenure were necessary, it is impossible to perform an analysis of each and every one of those shootings while the records are under seal. However, based solely upon ... the national statistics ... by the Department of Justice, it is clear that this police department is condoning the killing of citizens at a rate so far in excess of anything close to normal, that this Chief and his administration's conduct constitutes a violation of victims', including Quamaine Mason's[,] civil rights."
Federal court records contain a number of wrongful death lawsuits filed in recent years against Lafayette police. There's also the case of Devante Brown, another young black man who died after an altercation with Lafayette Police Cpl. Shannon Brasseaux, who was among the officers named alongside Faul in the Advertiser's article looking at the local department's most controversial officers. Brown is another case in which non-police witnesses gave far different accounts than the officers involved.
The third officer named in the Advertiser's story was Cpl. Jeremy Dupuis, who is believed to have been involved in a summer 2013 shooting that landed armed robbery suspect Jerome Turner, another young African-American, in a local hospital for two months. A day or so after the shooting, which occurred outside a convenience store on the corner of Pont des Mouton and University Avenue, Dupuis celebrated with a new Facebook profile pic, one that has since been removed but was reported by the Advertiser as depicting Dupuis with an explosion as his backdrop, his gun aimed at the camera and a caption saying, "WHO'S NEXT?" Dupuis, as well as Faul and Brasseaux, have all been named defendants in a series of excessive force lawsuits over the years, with Faul even playing a role in an inner-department cover-up in which he knowingly arrested the wrong suspect, according to Internal Affairs documents cited by the Advertiser. The case was investigated by Internal Affairs, but Faul's status with the department, like that of his colleagues, is unclear.
Chief Craft did not respond to questions emailed to him more than a week before this story went to press. He asked for more time.
Another case that lends itself to the pro-body cam argument is still developing in New Iberia, with the mysterious death of a handcuffed young man in the back of an Iberia Parish Sheriff Office's cruiser in May.
It‘s a hot, sticky Friday evening as we make our way up Anderson Street in the historic West End community of New Iberia. Accompanied by the sound of gospel drifting from a block over where a big church tent revival is just getting revved up for a weekend's worth of outdoor worship services, we arrive at the meeting spot for Victor White III's candlelight vigil. We're early, but so are a handful of people already gathered in the parking lot, including Victor's family, who'd just driven in from Alexandria.
We make our introductions but forego the small talk and turn to the story of young Victor: who he was, who he wanted to be and why he would never get there.
It‘s Sept. 12, a day after what would've been Victor's 23rd birthday celebration had it not been for a chance run-in with an IPSO's deputy six months earlier.
The grieving family has lots of questions and very few answers. What they know has mostly been gleaned from statements by Louisiana State Police, the go-to investigators used by most of Louisiana's sheriffs and police chiefs in an officer-related shooting, in addition to brief encounters with the sheriff's and coroner's offices. The first press release state police issued the morning of White's March 3 death was based solely on the arresting deputy's account of the incident. Not only does it credit White with shooting himself in the back, but with shooting himself in the back while in the back seat of the arresting deputy's cruiser with his hands cuffed behind him.
New information would surface with the release of the coroner's autopsy report in August, which based its cause of death on a claim made by the deputy who witnessed it all, that right before the fatal gunshot, he heard White say in the last moment before firing the fatal lone round into his back that "he was gone." The deputy was not wearing a body cam, which also would have picked up the audio.
The arresting deputy's identity was originally shielded by Iberia Sheriff Louis Ackal and state police investigators working the case. Cpl. Justin Ortis has since been revealed as the deputy involved in White's arrest and death. His identity was discovered and reported by The Daily Iberian in October, shortly after one of its reporters received an unredacted arrest report from the sheriff's office (likely a serious slip-up somewhere within the rank and file).
"My son did not kill himself," Victor's father, the Rev. Victor White II of Harmony Mission Baptist Church in Alexandria, says with conviction. "I spoke to him that morning. He was going to buy a car. He was going to get an apartment for him and his girlfriend and their baby. Why would he kill himself with all that going on? He has a 1-year-old daughter, and one day she's going to ask, 'Paw Paw, what happened?' I'm going to have to tell her the truth, but we don't know the truth."
A homemade memorial with Victor's picture and the hashtag #JusticeForVic sits propped in the bed of their pickup. It's joined by a second memorial, one adorned by a photo that's obviously not Victor, but another black male named Michael Jones. Like Victor White III, Jones also died shortly after being taken into custody by the IPSO.
The backdrop for White's vigil is a vacant parking lot situated between a long-shuttered sno-ball stand and a small but busy barbershop — where signs of the long-standing economic disparity between New Iberia's black and white communities are evident everywhere. But this represents just one disparity facing New Iberia's black community; the other, as seen through the eyes of many West End residents, is more like the proverbial wolf, but with a badge instead of sheep's clothes.
In the minds of some black residents of New Iberia, the West End community, like black communities throughout the nation, has long been under siege by the very people who swore an oath to protect and serve.
"We might not want to face these harsh realities ... but ... there is a war on young black men in this country," Takuna el Shabazz of the Community Council of Black Elders in Lafayette warns from behind a makeshift pulpit during Victor's vigil before launching into a chant that morphed from "Where there's the absence of justice, the presence of peace is negated by natural law" to "No justice for Victor, no justice for Trayvon Martin and no justice for Michael Brown."
White's death is now under investigation by the FBI. And this is by no means the first time an encounter between New Iberia's black community and the IPSO has resulted in a federal investigation. A cell phone video posted on YouTube last year showing an Iberia deputy beating a black teenager during a yearly block party held in celebration of the annual Sugar Cane Festival also resulted in a federal investigation as well as the termination of the videotaped deputy. Another incident came during the same event in 2006, when deputies shot tear gas into a crowd numbering into the thousands, including men, women, children and elderly residents. Both the 2006 and 2013 incidents resulted in a slate of federal lawsuits being filed against Sheriff Ackal, who denied our requests for an interview for this story.
It's unlikely that we'll ever really know what went down between Michael Brown, Victor White, Quamaine Mason and the police officers they encountered on the nights of their deaths. One big reason: None of the officers involved in those incidents had a body cam to back up their side of the story.
And making it even more troubling is that as the number of officers killed in the line of duty has taken a drastic nose dive over the last decade, that is not the case when it comes to the number of black male teens dying at the hands of police.
Brown's case may be something of an anomaly in that it sparked widespread protests and resurrected national conversations on race and law enforcement in this country.
A study released Oct. 10 by ProPublica puts it into an uncomfortable perspective: Black males between the ages of 15 and 19 are far more likely to be killed by a police officer than their white counterparts. The disparity is troubling.
ProPublica's analysis pulls from FBI data collected from more than 12,000 police homicides between 1980 and 2012; unfortunately, this offers only a glimpse of what's really happened over the years as many police departments have either been inconsistent with submitting figures on police shootings or they've opted against it altogether.
What ProPublica found is that young black men are 21 times more likely to die at the hands of police. Evening out this gross disparity, according to the study's findings, would require our nation's police officers to start killing a whole lot more white male youths, 185 more over the next three years. That amounts to just over one kill a week.
What happened to Michael Brown is an all too common occurrence in this country. The difference, though, between his story and the vast majority, is what happened in the immediate wake of his death, as the riots and looting died down and the collective voice of the black community continued to protest for justice. The overly militarized response by the Ferguson PD — equipped with a full arsenal of military-issued vehicles and crowd control equipment — only helped bolster the message of the protestors, and in the three months that have passed, their voice has reverberated in ways that will take years before we'll understand the grand historical impact.
Victor White III's death has sparked some attention from national media outlets like CNN, even prompting a visit from the Rev. Al Sharpton. But the reaction to White's death — despite it being limited when compared with Ferguson — is the exception among local cases of police-related killings in that it garnered outside media attention.
But if we've learned anything from the example set in Ferguson, it's that there is a breaking point, that eventually people will react.
Which leaves us waiting for the Lafayette PD to do the same.
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