More than 700 criminal cases have been thrown out and local prosecutors say hundreds more may be tainted after corruption was recently exposed in the Baton Rouge Police Department Narcotics Division.
An officer at the center of the scandal has been arrested twice, four high-ranking narcotics officers have been reassigned to different divisions, and the department is leading a criminal investigation into the drug unit’s possible wrongdoing.
According to WBRZ, the Baton Rouge TV station that broke news of the brewing scandal, narcotics officers planted drugs, made stops without probable cause, and targeted random Black and brown people for trumped-up charges as part of an arrest quota mandated by the division’s supervisors.
Jason Acree, a 12-year veteran of the force, was arrested in February for allegedly stealing marijuana seized from narcotics busts. He was arrested a second time April 14 and charged with obstruction of justice.
Jeremiah Ardoin, the whistleblower who brought the explosive allegations to light, has also been charged with an unrelated crime of buying stolen property. He claims he was set up after his supervising officers realized he was working to uncover the corruption he witnessed for four years as a narcotics officer.
“I’m here because I need to share my story,” Ardoin said during a tell-all interview with WBRZ. “I was speaking out long before this happened and that’s why the things they did to me happened. But when I was speaking out, pretty much fell on deaf ears until it got to this point.”
Ardoin’s revelations had sweeping ramifications. Leaders of Baton Rouge’s NAACP and Legislative Black Caucus spent months pushing for a thorough review of Narcotics Division cases in the wake of the two officers’ arrests. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III announced in March that his office was dropping 640 drug and weapons charges filed against 115 defendants. On April 26, the DA tossed another 72 charges that were possibly corrupted.
All of the dismissed charges stem from cases in which Acree and Ardoin were involved.
“We are basically wholesale dismissing cases. Look at the numbers. This is a s*** show for us,” Moore told The Advocate. “The bigger question is how far back do we go: When did all this start?”
Ardoin expects the number of charges dismissed to eventually reach into the thousands. Alaina Bloodworth, the Baton Rouge NAACP’s social justice chair, envisions as many as 10,000 cases could be tainted by the drug unit.
“If 640 cases just shook out the trees, how many cases is it?” she said during an interview with Atlanta Black Star. “To me, that’s just a testament of how many cases could actually be out there.”
Now community advocates are demanding a seat at the table as the district attorney’s office reviews the cases. The NAACP and the Legislative Black Caucus staged a press conference April 26 on the steps of Baton Rouge City Hall to demand a “community oversight committee” that would include civil rights attorneys and criminal defense lawyers. Bloodworth said the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has already agreed to be part of such a committee.
“We understand this has taken a really long time,” said Bloodworth, who also serves as the equity, diversity, inclusion director for the Baton Rouge Office of Public Defender. “We understand a lot of people have been hurt — lost employment opportunities and time from family. I mean, so many things have been taken away from the Black and brown community because of this unit. And unfortunately it’s taken this person this long to come out, but we have it now. And let’s try to push to be able to restore as many community members as possible.”
Ardoin said he first raised concerns last August. He met with police department officials and told them he was unhappy with the types of drug investigations the unit was conducting. A short time later, he asked to be transferred to a different division within the department. He did not divulge any of the alleged misconduct from his fellow narcotics officers at that time.
But Ardoin said his supervisors learned that he complained to administration and targeted him. He said a woman approached him to sell him two cameras and a television. He bought the electronics, which proved to be stolen. Shortly after Ardoin took the bait, he was arrested in December and charged with possession of stolen things. He claims he later learned that the woman who approached him was one of Acree’s confidential informants.
“It was two Ring floodlight cameras and a TV,” Ardoin told WBRZ. “It was about $500. It was a brand new package in the box, still had plastic wrap around the items, Styrofoam in the boxes. It wasn’t something I would have known was stolen.”
It was after he was hit with the misdemeanor charge that Ardoin reported widespread allegations of misconduct and racial bias in the narcotics unit. He first revealed them in a memo to investigators and later reiterated the allegations in a sit-down interview with WBRZ reporter Chris Nakamoto. He detailed how he said Acree stole marijuana seized during narcotics busts and gave it to a friend.
“We were working a parcel, which we do often, for FedEx,” Ardoin recounted during his bombshell interview, which aired April 28. “We made an arrest relative to a large quantity of marijuana. Several vacuumed sealed bags. When we arrived into the processing room to package the evidence I observed Acree cut open one of the Ziplock bags with a pocket knife, and he went and retrieved smaller Ziplock baggies and placed the marijuana inside that bag as well as some THC vape pens, cartridges, and he made a statement that he was bringing the drugs to his friend and his friend liked the vape cartridges and has brought it to him on other occasions. After he packaged it, he resealed the vacuumed sealed baggie with evidence tape, and he took the drugs and had taken them outside to his unit.”
Ardoin also talked about a practice called “snapping,” where officers jumped out and planted drugs on random people to make arrests.
Ardoin claimed unit supervisors knew of Acree’s actions and allowed it. The supervisors also required each narcotics officer to make at least one drug arrest per shift. The unwritten policy often led to drug detectives jumping out and searching unwitting Black and brown people without cause. Ardoin resigned from the police force April 27.
When internal investigators looked into Ardoin’s claims, they found evidence to corroborate the reports of misconduct. Several weeks later, Acree was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana and malfeasance in office. He was booked into jail again on the obstruction charge April 23. The disgraced officer remained on administrative leave even after the two arrests. He resigned May 4.
Four unnamed ranking officers in the Narcotics Division — two sergeants and two lieutenants — were moved from the drug unit and reassigned to the patrol division.
Now the Baton Rouge Police Department is continuing its criminal investigation as well as an administrative probe into the allegations.
“I understand the concern from the public when something like this happens,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said in a statement to The Advocate. “But I want people to be assured that we’re investigating this properly — and that the allegations do not represent the vast majority of men and women serving on the Baton Rouge Police Department.”
Many of the cases being dismissed involve Bloodworth’s former clients. She said the arrests and convictions can impact everything from their health, relationships with loved ones to their future employment opportunities. She plans to at some point move the discussion to expungements and called the allegations “atrocious.”
Bloodworth indicated corruption by narcotics officers has been an open secret in Baton Rouge’s Black community for years and said many are disappointed it took this long to come to the surface.
“These are conversations that have been happening in our community, that things like this were happening,” Bloodworth said. “But it took someone ‘blue,’ who is also Black to be able to come forward for people to start paying attention at this level. As if it wasn’t enough that the community was talking. Like it wasn’t enough that people would come in and say this didn’t happen like this. So I think what I’ve seen more than anything has been disappointment from the community.”
According to The Advocate, nearly 80 percent of the defendants whose cases were dismissed in the first batch of dropped charges were Black. Acree, who made a high volume of arrests, was involved in most of the dismissed cases.
Eugene Collins, president of NAACP’s Baton Rouge chapter, told Atlanta Black Star he’s deeply concerned by indications that the Black community may have been intentionally targeted by corrupt cops. He worries that someone trained Acree in the misconduct when he joined the narcotics unit.
“At this point, we don’t even know how long this has been going on,” Collins said. “A learned behavior is not just about this one officer. I believe we need to go back as far as 1980. Because if this was a taught culture, imagine what was happening out there before cellphone cameras and before people were willing to step forward.”
NAACP officials expressed faith in Paul, the city’s Black police chief. Bloodworth said Paul has taken on the police department’s powerful union in federal court. Collins noted he began investigating the allegations of rogue officers before any public scrutiny surfaced over the corruption scandal.
“The community is extremely pleased that Chief Murphy Paul is willing to investigate this. When we when we think about this in totality, we don’t get this far if we don’t have an administration willing to essentially investigate itself,” Collins said. “So first and foremost, this doesn’t happen under another chief. This is a reality that’s swept under the rug under anybody else. This isn’t the first time these complaints have been made in Baton Rouge. This is just the first time a police chief has followed up on those complaints.”
Alton Sterling was a 37-year-old Black man killed by two Baton Rouge police officers while selling CDs outside a convenience store in July 2016. The killing sparked protests and public clamorings for social justice. The U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into Sterling’s shooting death in 2016 but declined to file criminal charges against the two officers in May 2017.
Bloodworth said that case crumbled the Baton Rouge community’s belief in the Justice Department.
After a Louisiana attorney general investigation produced the same outcome in March 2018, Paul fired Blane Salamoni, one of the involved officers. The chief later apologized to Sterling’s family and said Salamoni “should have never been hired.” The other officer, Howie Lake II, remained on the force as of last year.
“I trust Chief Paul more than I do the DOJ, the FBI, or the state police,” Collins said. “I know it’s hard to sell people on internal investigations, but we have a good police chief here in Baton Rouge. I trust him more than I do anybody else to investigate this.”
Link to original Atlanta Black Star