A Black man who says  police officers  slammed him to the ground, knocked him unconscious and falsely arrested him after a racially motivated traffic stop has reached a legal settlement with the Marshal’s Office in Jackson, Louisiana, a town of about 4,000 people just north of Baton Rouge. 

The alleged attack happened during an August 2020 traffic stop in which Officer Travis Clay Depew was accused of beating Craig White because he objected to White’s relationship with a white woman, according to the lawsuit.

White’s settlement is the sixth with a law enforcement agency announced or finalized this year by the ACLU of Louisiana.  Each involved allegations of excessive force and racial profiling, among other constitutional violations. Together they expose a failure of leadership to purge problem officers from their ranks, something that plagues police departments across the country, said Nora Ahmed, legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana. 

“Those officers that end up committing killings are the very officers that are unlawfully stopping people, the very officers that are unlawfully searching people, the very officers that are engaged in unlawful arrest and the very officers that are engaged in excessive force,” Ahmed said. “And yet these officers continue to stay employed.” 

The Jackson Marshal’s Office is a perfect example, according to the ACLU lawsuit filed in August 2021 on behalf of White.

The accused officer, Depew, has a troubled history marked by accusations of violence and racism, raising questions as to why the Jackson department hired him in the first place, then continued to employ him after even more allegations poured in.  

Depew was previously fired in 2017 by the Pointe Coupee Police Department after accusations of stalking and malfeasance in office, according to the lawsuit and news reports. Details of the arrest are unknown as Depew’s court records were expunged in February 2021, according to the suit and reports.

The Jackson Marshal’s Office, however, had access to the files at the time they hired Depew, and, therefore, are directly responsible for what happened to White, the lawsuit alleged. 

While employed by the Jackson Marshal’s Office, in addition to attacking White, Depew was accused of beating another Black man in the face with a flashlight, sexually assaulting a woman during a traffic stop, and strangling a 16-year-old boy while repeatedly calling him the N-word.

Depew was convicted of simple battery in January for the incident involving the teenager and has since left the department. The Jackson Marshal’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. Attorneys for the Marshal’s Office also did not respond to requests for comment. 

The ACLU has not disclosed the terms of White’s settlement, which was reached in August 2022 but not finalized until recently. The Marshal’s Office hasn’t responded to a public records request seeking that information. 

A string of recent settlements

The lawsuit against the Jackson Marshal’s Office was filed as part of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab. The initiative, launched in 2020,  enlists law firms and legal clinics to file litigation against law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Justice Lab partners have filed 50 cases throughout Louisiana focusing on excessive force, racial profiling, unreasonable searches, stops and seizures, and false arrests. 

In March, the civil rights group announced a settlement with the Hammond Police Department on behalf of Timothy Watkins, a Black man who was injured during a shoplifting arrest. Watkins called 911 in April 2020 after someone threw a chunk of ceramic building material through his car windshield. Instead of investigating his complaint, the arriving officers, who were all white, arrested Watkins for allegedly stealing two bottles of tequila worth less than $80. That charge was later dropped, according to the lawsuit. 

During his arrest, Watkins told officers he suffered from severe sciatica – nerve pain in his lower back, hips and legs – and asked that they handcuff him from the front. 

“The officer callously and unjustifiably ignored Mr. Watkins’ pleas, and he was left handcuffed in a twisted, bent-over position for over 30 minutes while he was driven to the police station,” according to the ACLU of Louisiana. “As he had feared, this acutely aggravated his medical condition, causing debilitating long-term pain that has left him unable to perform even basic household chores.”

An additional three settlements were announced in February, the most recent of which was with the Thibodaux Police Department on behalf of Yohann Jackson, a Black man with cerebral palsy. Jackson claimed officers intentionally injured his disabled right arm while they performed an illegal search of his home after they claimed to smell marijuana. The city of Thibodaux did not respond to a public records request for terms of the settlement.

“Those officers that end up committing killings are the very officers that are unlawfully stopping people, the very officers that are unlawfully searching people, the very officers that are engaged in unlawful arrest and the very officers that are engaged in excessive force.”

Nora Ahmed, ACLU of Louisiana

Earlier that month, the New Orleans Police Department finalized a $10,000 settlement with Michael Celestine, a Black man who claimed he was stopped by police without cause, threatened with a gun, shocked with a stun gun, then falsely arrested, all while officers ignored his medical needs.

That came on the heels of a $20,000 settlement with the Shreveport Police Department on behalf of Brandon Kennedy who said an officer assaulted him after he expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Each of the involved police departments denied any wrongdoing, according to court documents. Other than Depew, the officers in each case are still employed, according to the departments and the Innocence Project New Orleans’ Louisiana Law Enforcement Accountability Database

‘What is your old lady up to these days?’

It was about 8 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2020, when White, driving his Honda Accord on Charter Street in Jackson, noticed blue flashing lights in his rearview mirror. He pulled over to the side of the road and watched as an officer got out of his patrol car and approached. It was Depew.

The officer took White’s license and registration, then asked a question which White believes was the reason he was pulled over.

“What is your old lady up to these days?” Depew asked, according to the suit.

“I don’t know,” White said. “She’s at home, I guess.”

White is Black. His wife is white. Depew had a problem with that, White’s lawyers alleged.

Depew ordered White to step out of his vehicle, then tried to search White without cause or reasonable suspicion that he had committed a crime, according to the suit. When he lunged at White and started to “aggressively touch” him, White slapped his hand away.

“Without warning and in the blink of an eye,” Depew tackled White to the ground, slamming his head and shoulder into the pavement, according to the suit. White lost consciousness and woke up in the back of an ambulance, handcuffed and with a bandage on his head.

The injuries White suffered were so severe they prevented him from working as a car mechanic for about six months, according to the suit. He continues to struggle with recurring headaches, problems with his vision, a reduced range of motion in his right arm, as well as anxiety, depression and a loss of sleep.

In his report, Depew said he pulled White over because he saw him texting while driving. He then suspected White had drugs in his pocket and when he tried to search him, White put his hand on his neck and shoved him. Fearing he would be pushed into oncoming traffic, Depew said, he tackled White to the ground and handcuffed him.

“It was at that point I noticed Craig appeared to be unconscious. I then observed some blood coming from Craig’s head and I heard what sounded like snoring,” Depew wrote in his report. “It was also found that during Craig’s resistance my Jackson issued body worn camera was damaged.”

But the ACLU disputes Depew’s claims.

“White made no actions that could reasonably be construed as an act of aggression” toward Depew or another officer who was at the scene, attorneys wrote in White’s lawsuit. But without any warning, Depew tackled him to the ground. 

“In doing so, he slammed Plaintiff White’s head and shoulder into the asphalt and caused Plaintiff White’s head to bleed,” White’s attorneys wrote.

Depew arrested White on a host of charges including resisting and battery of an officer.  White accused Depew of manufacturing the charges and failing to turn on his body camera in an attempt to cover up his misconduct, a pattern of behavior that played out in the coming months, according to the suit.

A history of alleged civil rights violations

About two months after Depew allegedly assaulted White, he was accused of beating a Black man, Tyquan Vessell, in the face with a flashlight so severely it caused “blowout facial fractures.” Depew booked Vessell on resisting arrest and battery of a police officer.

Less than a month later, Chastity Harveston accused Depew of physically and sexually assaulting her during a traffic stop in front of her 7-year-old daughter.

Harveston was driving home from work at about 10 p.m. on Nov. 4, 2020, when Depew pulled her over for allegedly speeding and driving erratically. Depew ordered her out of the car, then “grabbed and squeezed her breasts,” Harveston said in a civil rights lawsuit filed with the ACLU of Louisiana against Depew and the department.

During the alleged assault, Harveston’s daughter jumped out of the car screaming, “Mama!” When Harveston tried to put her child back inside the vehicle, Depew slammed Harveston to the ground causing significant injuries to her knees, legs, arms and hands. He then threw her into the back of his patrol car and began to choke her, according to the lawsuit, which is pending.

As with White and Vessell, Depew booked Harveston for resisting arrest. He did not have his body camera turned on. A settlement in this case was reached in January.

The final incident, which led to Depew’s arrest and conviction, happened after midnight on Feb. 21, 2021. A 16-year-old boy and several friends pulled into a convenience store in Jackson to get food. Depew was already on the scene responding to calls about a potential fight.

The officer walked up to their car and told them to leave, according to reports and court documents. When the Black teenager said he didn’t do anything wrong and was just trying to get some food, Depew called him the N-word several times, tried to pull him out of the car by his neck and asked the teen if he wanted to fight, according to the lawsuit and court documents. He stopped only when another officer intervened.

Depew, who was placed on leave following the incident pending an investigation, turned himself into the East Feliciana Parish jail in May of that year where he faced charges of simple battery and malfeasance in office, according to news reports. He was later convicted of simple battery, a misdemeanor.

“In the heat of the moment of a stressful situation, we must be able to rely on our law enforcement officers to be the voice of reason and maintain their cool and calm composure,” Judge Kathryn Jones said in convicting Depew. “Were it not for the intervention of [the second officer], it is likely that the situation would have escalated further.”

Chief Deputy Marshal Robert Sanders testified that it was “unexplained why Depew’s body camera was blank even though Depew testified that he turned it on.”

The family of the teenager filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Depew and the department, which is pending.

John McLindon, who represented Depew in the criminal case which resulted in his simple battery conviction, said Depew was trying to stop a riot breaking out between rival gangs when the incident with the 16-year-old occurred.

“I think Clay was justified in what he did,” McLindon said. “He’s frustrated that everyone is saying, ‘Oh, you’re doing all this bad stuff.’ He said, ‘I’m arresting bad guys.’” 

In an unusual twist, McLindon represented a woman in a civil lawsuit 13 years ago brought against Depew’s father, Travis Depew. Lavita Vessell accused the father, who at the time was a deputy with the West Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office, of breaking her arm during an unlawful arrest. Vessell was later convicted of battery of an officer which forced her to drop the lawsuit.

Ron Haley, who represents the family of the 16-year-old in their lawsuit, said Depew is a symptom of a “pipeline that keeps bad cops on the force.”

“The same system that protects them in Pointe Coupee and Jackson is the same system that protects them in New Orleans and Baton Rouge,” Haley said. “This person was obviously unfit to carry a badge and a gun.” 

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...