In the summer of 2017, Zachary Terrell was exhausted from a long day of work and ready to have a few drinks with friends in the French Quarter. Then Louisiana State Police troopers changed his life forever.
Terrell, a Black man, and his friend, “a white male,” according to court records, were riding bicycles when two officers spotted them. The troopers said they believed they were witnessing a drug deal between the two men.
This was a period in which State Police were augmenting local police efforts with regular patrols in the Quarter.
The officers, according to records, decided to investigate and circled the congested one-way streets of the French Quarter to approach them. Terrell and his friend were still standing there when the officers stepped out of their car.
Terrell plugged his shiny blue earbuds into the earphone jack of his cellphone and began pedaling away. The white man put his hands in the air. Terrell has maintained that with his earbuds in, he did not hear any order to stop.
None of the State Police reports identified the white male or noted whether he was questioned. The records do describe how the troopers chased Terrell, catching up to him at the intersection of Burgundy and St. Peter streets.
Terrell said he was approached aggressively by one officer, Jeffrey Pichon, who fired his stun gun into Terrell’s back, temporarily incapacitating him and knocking him off his bicycle onto the hard asphalt. As Terrell lay on the ground in pain, he alleged in a 2018 federal lawsuit, Pichon kicked him in the head, then stomped him in the face before placing his knee on Terrell’s back and handcuffing him.
Terrell’s narrative also described the other trooper, a supervising officer, as standing back and watching the scene unfold with no intervention as Pichon dragged Terrell from the street to the sidewalk.
Terrell’s lawsuit also described significant physical harm he endured, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder and night terrors. He was taken by ambulance from the scene to University Medical Center, where physicians put seven stitches to close a wound on his right eyebrow. Medical staff also found that Terrell suffered from facial swelling, bruising, and abrasions to his nose, upper lip, and on the top of his head, as well as wounds on his wrists, elbows, and knee, according to medical documents. Four days later, lesions on Terrell’s face and head showed signs of “honey-colored crust,” indicating an infection requiring antibiotics, the records show.
In 2019, Terrell lost his lawsuit because he had already pleaded guilty to drug charges and resisting arrest, barring him from pursuing damages without showing that the conviction or sentence has been overturned in some way. But his case is one of many that the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana cite as an example of Louisiana State Police using excessive force.
“There are hundreds, probably thousands of people who experience those kinds of events daily, many of those being people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled community, and they’re unable to represent themselves,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “Unfortunately, the only cases that are very lucrative to take are cases where someone is either mortally wounded or killed.”
Due to ongoing investigations into cases, Louisiana State Police could not provide comment. However, when asked about the investigation into the agency, Capt. Nick Manale, a spokesman for the State Police, responded with a statement made at the investigation’s announcement in June by Colonel Lamar Davis, Louisiana State Police Superintendent.
“As our agency moves forward, we have taken great strides in amending policies such as banning chokeholds, banning the use of impact weapons to the head and neck, instituting a duty to intervene policy, and defining accountability for supervisors to review, track, and report excessive force incidents.” said Davis in the written statement.
“Implicit bias training is already in effect and de-escalation/duty to intervene training will begin this year. These improvements and reforms affect every aspect of our department and are only possible through the dedicated efforts of our Troopers, DPS Police Officers, and support staff.”
That’s what happened in the case of Ronald Greene. In 2019, body-camera footage shows Louisiana State Police officers beating Greene after he crashed his car following a high speed chase. He later died of his injuries.
The story made national headlines, in part, because police originally blamed Greene’s injuries on the car crash. The truth only came out when the camera footage was revealed. Greene’s family have accused LSP of a cover-up. None of the officers involved in Greene’s death has yet been arrested or indicted.
The details of Greene’s case prompted the Department of Justice, with pressure from the ACLU, to launch an investigation into excessive use-of-force claims against Louisiana State Police.
Odoms last year sent a letter to the civil rights division of the DOJ after an investigation by the ACLU of Louisiana found repeated incidents of misconduct including both Terrell’s and Greene’s cases. Odoms said the ACLU findings were especially troubling because of the State Police’s other role: They are tasked with investigating alleged misconduct among all law enforcement agencies in Louisiana, including itself.
The DOJ announced its investigation of the Louisiana State Police in June, the first investigation into any state policing agency across the nation in the past 20 years. The investigation will determine if there are systemic problems within the force.
“The investigation will include a comprehensive review of LSP policies, training, supervision, and force investigations, as well as LSP’s systems of accountability, including misconduct complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition, and discipline,” a press statement issued by the DOJ said.
In the same written statement, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, said, “This investigation, like all of our pattern-or-practice investigations, will seek to promote the transparency, accountability, and public trust that is essential to public safety.”
Pattern-or-practice investigations include routine uses of excessive force, repeated stops, searches, or arrests that are unreasonable; and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, or sex.
“The law enforcement partnership between NOPD and the Louisiana State Police is a strong and beneficial relationship. No consideration is being given to altering the relationship,” said Gary Scheets, the director of communications for NOPD.
Though State Police troopers are no longer deployed to the New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District — which includes the French Quarter — for regular patrols, the NOPD has continued to work with the agency on major operations, including the summer anti-violent crime partnership dubbed “Operation Golden Eagle.”
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office has not responded to requests for comment on whether they plan to continue partnering with Louisiana State Police in light of the excessive use of force allegations and the DOJ investigation.
‘This is a must’
Part of the ongoing investigation into the agency will include statewide town halls co-hosted by the ACLU of Louisiana and the Department of Justice. The first town hall was held in October on the campus of Dillard University, where people aired their grievances about State Police behavior.
Attendees were provided dinner, resources to other non-profit organizations and a brief informational session that discussed best practices when interacting with law enforcement and civil rights.
One of the first individuals to speak was Carl Cavalier, a former Louisiana state trooper. Cavalier was fired earlier this year after he publicly criticized the State Police actions related to Greene’s death and leaked documents about troopers beating Black motorists.
“The DOJ is here to establish pattern or practice,” Cavalier said. “If they don’t have direct information of where to look, it leaves them a way out to make an excuse and say we didn’t find anything.”
Cavalier said he turned over key internal documents to the DOJ. “I came with dates, times, and actual names of people,” he said. “You can’t allow State Police to turn over information on their timeframe because they are going to redact information or tamper with the evidence.”
Even the town hall raised issues about State Police transparency. As a former undercover officer, Cavalier said there were two current undercover cops at the meeting posing as attendees.
Odoms personally invited Ronald Greene’s mother to the town hall. Adorned with a pin of her son, Mona Hardin spoke about the other families who felt the pain of losing a loved one, families that she met after the death of her son.
Hardin expressed thankfulness that the investigation had been launched but anger that it took so long to get the DOJ involved.
“This is a must, and it’s not about one specific family; it’s about all of us,” Hardin said.
Hardin also had a message for those who abuse their power. “It will stop; it has to. It’s organized crime at its best, the Ku Klux Klan at its worst. At some point, the talking needs to stop, and action needs to happen.”
After Hardin spoke, Odoms asked the audience to stand if they had experienced police brutality or lost a loved one to it. Two-thirds of the room stood, some linking arms to show solidarity.
The DOJ’s investigation is expected to proceed for the next 18 months, at minimum, but there is no clear timeline for completion.
Odoms said that the DOJ has already begun planning a second town hall in the Shreveport or Monroe area. The ACLU of Louisiana is recommending that the DOJ hold at least two or three other town halls and connect with local organizers.
“Policing and ensuring that police are held accountable is a job that is incumbent upon all of us,” Odoms said. “There are some functions that I think police can help us with, but largely the role and the scope of policing needs to be dramatically altered in this country.”
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