by David M. Reutter
I’m done. I’m beat up. I’m tired,” Iberia Parish, Louisiana Sheriff Louis Ackal, 75, said in November 2018, upon announcing his decision not to seek re-election. However, his words more accurately described the detainees at the Iberia Parish Jail and citizens in his community who were subjected to a culture of abuse during Ackal’s tenure as the parish’s top cop.
Ackal was elected sheriff in 2007 after campaigning on a reform platform. He was a New Iberia native who became a state trooper and served in Louisiana state government before retiring to Colorado, which, according to his supporters, gave him a worldly appeal when he returned home due to problems in Iberia Parish.
His first act as sheriff was to eliminate the internal affairs unit. Then, in 2010, he launched the IMPACT squad, which was an operation that put deputies on patrol in New Iberia’s black communities. While the operation was purportedly intended to reduce crime, it was marked by frequent and violent arrests. It was disbanded in 2016, and according to a December 2018 news report, 18 convictions were later dismissed due to misconduct by the squad’s members, including fabricating police reports.
Sheriff Ackal ordered that prisoners in his jail wear pink clothes and be denied ice during the summer, and he often joked about them to the press.
His tactics landed him in federal court on civil rights violations in 2016, but he was acquitted by a federal jury amid an unsuccessful petition for his recall from office. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.33].
Ackal fired Deputy Deborah Lourd on November 4, 2016, the day he was acquitted, for cooperating with the FBI, she alleged in a subsequent lawsuit. Her cooperation included handing over an audio recording of the sheriff calling the federal prosecutor a “Jew bastard” and threatening to shoot him “right between [his] goddamned Jewish eyes.”
Other claims against Ackal and the culture in the sheriff’s department were far more serious. In 2014, his office claimed that Victor White III shot himself to death while handcuffed in the back of a deputy’s squad car. The family sued and an undisclosed settlement was reached. That same year, Whitney Paul Lee, Jr. was strip searched and forced to kneel at the jail. He struggled to breathe, and a group of deputies beat him with a baton and fired a bean bag round at his leg. Lee filed suit and reached a confidential settlement.
Also in 2014, 16-year-old Daquentin Thompson committed suicide at the Iberia Parish Jail. His mother sued and received a $175,000 settlement.
By 2019, Ackal’s office had paid out almost $6 million due to lawsuits, which led the Louisiana Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Program, an insurance group for sheriff’s offices, to remove Iberia Parish because it contributed to a third of the program’s losses during the previous five years. Almost half of the payouts in litigation against the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office went to one man.
Derrick Sellers, 33, was arrested in September 2013 on a domestic violence charge that was later dropped. He was escorted alone down a hallway at the jail by four guards, who shoved him against a wall. They then beat him with fists, knees and a black object, and pepper sprayed him twice. The beating broke his cheek bone down to the eye socket. It also left him mentally disabled and with vision problems. Prior to the beating, Sellers was a “stellar Marine” who was in an officer training program. Now he struggles to answer the easiest of questions. He filed suit and reached a $2.5 million settlement in February 2019.
That was one of 16 civil cases pending against the sheriff’s office at the time. A $275,000 settlement was reached with former jail prisoner Marcus Robicheaux, who was beaten by a guard and attacked by a K-9 during a shakedown. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.63]. The guard, Sgt. David Prejean, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for assaulting Robicheaux.
Further, ten deputies pleaded guilty to beating and abusing prisoners at the jail during three incidents from 2011 to 2014. Some prisoners said they were assaulted at Sheriff Ackal’s direction, to teach them a lesson. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.36; Sept. 2017, p.46].
While it is hoped that Ackal’s departure from the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office will result in much-needed reforms, some critics have their doubts. “This does not exist in a vacuum,” said local activist Leroy Vallot. “People have not been held accountable.”
Sources: theappeal.org, theadvocate.com, theadvertiser.com, iberianet.com
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