4 Baton Rouge officers charged in connection with “brave cave” scandal

4 Baton Rouge officers charged in connection with “brave cave” scandal

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The scandal-plagued Baton Rouge Police Department has arrested four of its own officers, including a deputy chief, and charged them with trying to cover up excessive force during a strip search inside a department bathroom, the police chief announced Friday.

Corp. Douglas Chustz, Deputy Chief Troy Lawrence, Sr., Corp. Todd Thomas, and Sgt. Jesse Barcelona were arrested on multiple charges, including malfeasance, theft, and obstruction, according to CBS affiliate WAFB.

The department is under intensifying scrutiny as the FBI opened a civil rights investigation last week into allegations that officers assaulted detainees in an obscure warehouse known as the “brave cave.” The officers who were arrested were part of the same since-disbanded street crimes unit that ran the warehouse.

“Lets be crystal clear, there is no room for misconduct or unethical behavior in our department,” Chief Murphy Paul said at a news conference Friday. “No one is above the law.”

Numerous lawsuits allege that the Street Crimes Unit of the Baton Rouge Police Department abused drug suspects at a recently shuttered narcotics processing center. The FBI said experienced prosecutors and agents are “reviewing allegations that members of the department may have abused their authority.” 

The findings announced Friday stemmed from one of several administrative and criminal inquiries surrounding the street crimes unit. In one case under FBI scrutiny, a man says he was taken to the warehouse and beaten so severely he needed hospital care before being booked into jail. 

In another, a federal lawsuit filed by Ternell Brown, a grandmother, alleges that police officers conducted an unlawful strip-search on her. 

The lawsuit alleges that officers pulled over Brown while she was driving with her husband near her Baton Rouge neighborhood in a black Dodge Charger in June. Police officers ordered the couple out of the car and searched the vehicle, finding pills in a container, court documents said. Brown said the pills were prescription and she was in “lawful possession” of the medication. Police officers became suspicious when they found she was carrying two different types of prescription pills in one container, the complaint said. 

Officers then, without Brown’s consent or a warrant, the complaint states, took her to the unit’s “Brave Cave.” The Street Crimes Unit used the warehouse as its “home base,” the lawsuit alleged, to conduct unlawful strip searches.

Police held Brown for two hours, the lawsuit reads, during which she was told to strip, and after an invasive search, “she was released from the facility without being charged with a crime.”

“What occurred to Mrs. Brown is unconscionable and should never happen in America,” her attorney, Ryan Keith Thompson, said in a statement to CBS News.

Paul said Friday’s finding are from an attempted strip search in September 2020, when two officers from the unit allegedly hit a suspect and shocked him with their stun guns. The episode was captured by body-worn cameras that the officers didn’t know were turned on.

They later tried to “get rid of” the video after a supervisor determined the officers had used excessive force. Paul said the officers were directed to get rid of the camera so that the “evidence could not be downloaded.” The bodycam footage was not made public.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore told CBS affiliate WAFB that hundreds of criminal cases could be jeopardized after the officer’s arrests.

“We’re talking several hundreds of cases over the years that these folks would’ve been involved in,” said Moore.

Moore said the average officer can handle up to 400 cases a year.

“What we’re going to have to do is go through every case, one at a time individually to determine what role if any either one of the four officers played in that case, and can we prove that case without that officer, or was that officer even needed,” said Moore.

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