The Investigators: Forced to Settle
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Some Baton Rouge Police officers have a past that comes at a cost. It has left taxpayers with a million dollar bill the city-parish is forced to settle. Many of the officers involved in the excessive force lawsuits still carry a badge.
The claims in the case files The Investigators reviewed are alarming. Some of them include allegations like, "cop went berserk; beaten and kicked after being handcuffed; serious injury resulting in emergency surgery to prevent imminent death; handcuffed and broke his jaw; shot and killed by police officer."
The Investigators looked into the number of excessive force cases that have been settled over the past five years. We found a total of 19 cases involving at least 56 officers. The settlement figures range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands for a total of $1.5 million, some paid with tax dollars, some paid by insurance for which taxpayers pay the premium.
Most of the officers involved, 42 out of 56 officers, are still working on the Baton Rouge Police force. And according to our records, at least six of them have been promoted since those incidents.
We took our discovery to LSU School of Public Health Professor Peter Scharf, an expert in the courts for police deadly force, who has been looking at force cases more for than 30 years. He said officers are trained to keep their cool.
"A good sergeant knows the heartbeat of every member of their platoon. Where they are? Who the opponents might be? They know how they are going to react to stress," Peter Scharf, PhD, said.
The incidents happened under three different police chiefs, Jeff LeDuff, Dwayne White, and current Chief Carl Dabadie. Dr. Scharf said part of the problem is that term "excessive force" is more of a metaphor and is defined differently by every department.
"The police officer can use force in totality with the circumstances, and there's also requirement that she or he use a reasonable strategy but that is not necessarily the best strategy," Scharf said.
Did officers use the best strategy on September 28, 2010 when they issued a search warrant at a woman named Linda Thomas' home? Thomas claims during the search, an officer pointed a loaded rifle in her face, ordered to lie on the floor and stamped his foot on her face. The city settled last year for $40,000. Thirteen officers were named in that case. Ten are still on the force, five of them were promoted.
"Those are very risky decisions," Scharf said.
Scharf believes the city took a big risk when it moved Officer Robert Schilling up the ranks. The city has settled two cases involving him. One in 2010, for over $331,000. Schilling and 14 other officers were named. Ten are still on the force.
Three years later, cell phone video surfaced showing Schilling, by this time a sergeant on the force, pulling a woman's hair during a traffic stop. She sued him and the police department. The city settled for $30,000.
"That one did worry me. There are people who seem to be involved over a number of cases over the years," Scharf said.
In 2008, Baton Rouge Police Officer Robert Moruzzi was reportedly off duty at a bar in downtown Baton Rouge when he allegedly got drunk and hit someone.
After that, Chief Jeff LeDuff, fired him. But that decision was overturned by the civil service board and instead Moruzzi got a 90 day suspension.
Now, in separate case, he is part of a lawsuit against the department alleging excessive force.
And, as approved by current Chief Dabadie, Moruzzi is now a member of the city's Special Response Team.
"That's just the nature of the occupation, and some are things like shared risk, some are conceptualized together. No department can tolerate that," Scharf said.
Chief Dabadie said the police department did not have any control over Moruzzi's punishment. As for Moruzzi's spot on the SRT, "He served his time, did his part, and now he is able to apply for things that he qualifies for," Chief Carl Dabadie said.
The chief adds the BRPD Internal Affairs Division reviews complaints lodged against each officer. He said, officers who receive three or more complaints during a six month period are pulled in, evaluated, and may be disciplined or sent for remedial training.
"In 2014, the Baton Rouge Police Department received 15 citizen complaints. They came into Internal Affairs, signed the paperwork for a complaint. In that same year, I and internal affairs in this department had 63 complaints we started ourselves," Dabadie said.
As for the settlements in most of these cases, Dabadie said, it is not a police department decision to settle. Instead, it is done by the parish attorney's office.
"We, the BRPD, have no say or input in those decisions or how those cases are handled. That's done solely by the parish attorney's office," Dabadie said.
It's important to point out, not all of these cases involve what might come to mind when you think of "excessive force." One of them involved a $303,000 settlement. Police said the man who got that money bailed out of a car they were chasing and got run over by police. However, in his lawsuit the man claimed he simply stepped out of the vehicle and was run over. He sued for damages and the city-parish settled.
"I take it very seriously and I take it personally. So we conduct those investigations freely. We are not trying to cover anything up or sweep anything under the rug, and we do an all-out investigation with internal affairs on incidents that we feel need to be investigated," Dabadie said.
Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson said, "I would not characterize 19 cases in five years as a large amount of settlements. We made a business decision as far as cost of defense and risk of an adverse judgment."
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