Candidates for WBR sheriff speak on Josef Richardson shooting, other issues

A look at the candidates running for West Baton Rouge sheriff

WEST BATON ROUGE PARISH, La. (WAFB) - For the first time since one of his deputies shot and killed Josef Richardson while serving a search warrant, Sheriff Mike Cazes has broken his silence.

"It’s a sad thing and I wanted to make sure that it was fair and just and I turned everything over to the state police the moment I found out my deputy was involved, so I’m not going to render a decision one way or another as far as what’s going to happen because I don’t know,” Sheriff Cazes said.

Sheriff Mike Cazes
Sheriff Mike Cazes (Source: WAFB)

The sheriff drew sharp criticism on the way he and his department handled the shooting. Cazes has remained out of the public eye since the incident.

During a rally in front of the West Baton Rouge Courthouse in July, the crowd yelled out, asking where Cazes was and demanded answers.

The candidates running against Cazes say he should have handled it better.

“You can’t cover up or hide from or not come public with a statement of condolence to a family or to a hurt community,” said Barnell Williams, one of the candidates.

“I would’ve probably at least spoke out to let the people know that we’re looking into it and as soon as we know something, I will disclose whatever I can without jeopardizing the investigation,” said Robin Free, another candidate for sheriff.

Robin Free
Robin Free (Source: WAFB)

Mike Zito, who is the marshal for Ward 3 in West Baton Rouge Parish, says he understands it’s a tough situation, but Cazes needed to handle it better.

"You need to let the public know at least something, something for them to, you have to investigate these things to the fullest. You can’t just say nothing and leave your people out there straggling and don’t know what’s going on,” Zito said.

Despite the criticism, Cazes says he’s standing firm in his response.

“On the advice of my attorney was that I do not make any comments. It’s not my investigation, it’s a state police investigation,” Cazes said. “Until they give you the results of that investigation, you do not say a word to nobody and that’s the advice I took.”

On community issues, Zito says he wants to focus on bringing back programs that build trust in the sheriff’s office.

“I'd like to bring back the junior deputy program,” Zito said. “I think that starts a lot of respect for young people as to your officers that are putting on the program."

Mike Zito
Mike Zito (Source: WAFB)

Williams, who is an officer in Simmesport, says he wants greater transparency with the department along with restoring trust in law enforcement.

"People are fearful of traffic stops,” Williams said. “I get calls all the time, people are fearful of encounters with law enforcement, so it shouldn’t be that. We shouldn’t be fearful of law enforcement officers. Period.”

Barnell Williams
Barnell Williams (Source: WAFB)

Free previously served as a judge in West Baton Rouge Parish, but was suspended. He later resigned amid a 9News Investigation into allegations that he was threatening West Baton Rouge deputies over issuing traffic tickets. When asked about those allegations and why he stepped down, he said he did not do anything that was illegal while on the bench and that his past should not discredit his campaign.

“My suspensions had to do with judicial canons, not breaking the law,” Free said. “Judicial canons are a set of laws that apply to judges and judges only. There’s nothing that I did as a judge that got me suspended that would be a problem in the least bit if I’m sheriff.”

He says he wants his campaign to be positive.

"Our community is in bad shape right now because there's so much friction going on,” he said. “It's time to stop looking back and start looking forward."

He says he also wants to focus on stopping the number of escapees from the inmate work release program. That’s a problem Cazes says there’s not much he can do about.

“It’s a thing, these people, I mean, they can walk off,” Cazes said. “They’re not under lock and key, they’re not in handcuffs, they’re not in leg-ons. They’re on a job site to go to work. If they decide on that day they’re going to take off, there’s not much I can do about it, but overall, out of 16 years, it’s probably 25,000 to 30,000 inmates to go through the work release program and less than 1%, I don’t know, maybe 3% of that population has decided to go walk off or leave.”

The election for West Baton Rouge sheriff is Oct. 8. Early voting begins Sept. 28 and goes through Oct. 5.

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