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Baton Rouge Officers Accused of Covering Up Use of Excessive Force

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Three officers and a deputy chief of the police department in Baton Rouge, La., were charged with attempting to cover up their use of stun guns during a strip search inside a department restroom, the police chief said on Friday.

The allegations were announced against the backdrop of a series of scandals in the department, which is the subject of an F.B.I. civil rights investigation and at least three recent federal lawsuits that say that some officers abused and humiliated detainees.

The police chief, Murphy J. Paul Jr., said at a news conference on Friday that the new charges stem from a September 2020 strip search of a man who was under arrest.

“Let’s be crystal clear: There is no room for misconduct or unethical behavior in our department,” Chief Paul said. “No one is above the law.”

Two officers were strip-searching a man in a restroom in a police station when they used their stun guns to try to get him to comply, Chief Paul said. One officer also struck the man, the chief said.

The officers did not realize that they had activated their body cameras by using the stun guns, Chief Paul said, and a supervisor told them to show him what the cameras had recorded.

The supervisor believed that the camera footage showed an excessive use of force, which would violate department policies, Chief Paul said. The footage has not been made public.

“A plan was then made to cover up the incident and get rid of the body camera,” Chief Paul said.

The deputy chief, Troy Lawrence Sr., was charged with malfeasance in office, simple battery, theft and obstruction of justice.

The three officers who were charged were Jesse Barcelona, who faces counts of malfeasance in office, theft and obstruction of justice; Todd Thomas, who was charged with simple battery, theft, malfeasance in office and obstruction of justice; and Douglas Chutz, who was charged with malfeasance in office.

Chief Lawrence, Officer Barcelona and Officer Thomas were arrested on Thursday and released later that day, according to the jail records of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office. They were placed on leave, a television station in Baton Rouge, WAFB, reported.

It was not clear if Officer Chutz had been arrested as of Sunday morning.

John McLindon, a lawyer for Officer Thomas, declined to comment. A lawyer for Officer Barcelona did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday. Chief Lawrence and Officer Chutz could not be reached. The Baton Rouge Union of Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Baton Rouge Police Department has faced several allegations of misconduct in recent years. In 2016, the department faced scrutiny after a white police officer fatally shot a 37-year-old Black man, Alton Sterling.

The F.B.I. said last month that a new investigation was based on “allegations that members of the department may have abused their authority.”

Lawsuits have recently been filed in federal court accusing Baton Rouge police officers of abusing detainees in an unmarked warehouse known as the Brave Cave, run by the department’s Street Crimes Unit.

In one lawsuit, a grandmother detained by the police in June for mixing two kinds of prescription pills in one container said she was stripped, cavity searched and held at the warehouse for more than two hours before being released without being charged.

Another suit said that in January officers beat a 21-year-old man so badly at the warehouse that he had to be treated at a hospital for broken bones and other injuries.

A former officer named in both of the lawsuits, Troy Lawrence Jr., is the son of the deputy chief. Troy Lawrence was arrested and charged with battery in September, the police department said. He could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

The charges from the 2020 strip search case are unrelated to the so-called Brave Cave, which has been closed. But the officers in that case were part of the now-disbanded street crime unit that was involved in the Brave Cave case.

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