FBI investigates alleged abuse in Baton Rouge police building called the 'Brave Cave'
The FBI said Friday it has opened a civil rights investigation into allegations in recent lawsuits that police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, assaulted drug suspects they detained in an obscure warehouse known as the "Brave Cave."
In one case, a man says he was taken to the warehouse and beaten so severely he needed hospital care before being booked into jail. In another, a woman claims she was strip-searched, with an officer using a flashlight to scan her body.
Since the first complaint was filed last month, the city's mayor has ordered the facility closed, the police department has disbanded its street crimes unit and an officer at the center of the allegations — the son of a current deputy chief — resigned and was arrested on a simple battery charge.
FBI officials confirmed Friday that the agency has opened an investigation based on "allegations that members of the department may have abused their authority."
This latest scandal adds to a long list of corruption and misconduct allegations plaguing the Baton Rouge Police Department, which came under significant scrutiny following the 2016 fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man. In 2021, a corruption probe into the department's narcotics division led to criminal charges and internal discipline against officers accused of stealing drugs from evidence and lying on police reports.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul, who was hired to lead the agency in the wake of Sterling's killing, said he was so concerned over the recent warehouse claims that he drove to the FBI's New Orleans field division and asked them to review the allegations.
"There were some mistakes made," Paul told The Associated Press, acknowledging that his internal affairs division initially failed to investigate. "I promise you we will get to the bottom of this."
The most recent lawsuit, which attorneys filed earlier this week on behalf of Ternell Brown, alleges officers pulled her over in June, took her to the same "black site" and strip-searched her for "contraband." She was released without charges when officers concluded the prescription drugs in her possession were legal.
Her attorneys wrote in the lawsuit that they are still learning "the full horror of what the street crimes unit did there. ... Even those who were not beaten at the torture warehouse, we now know, were still sexually humiliated."
The officer who resigned, Troy Lawrence Jr., has been the subject of several civil rights lawsuits and excessive force complaints in recent years. His father, Troy Lawrence Sr., was promoted to deputy chief in 2020 after commanding the street crimes unit, which went by the acronym BRAVE, for Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination.
It was not clear late Friday whether Lawrence Jr. had an attorney who could comment on his behalf. An email sent to the police union seeking comment late Friday wasn't immediately answered.
According to a lawsuit filed last month, he repeatedly turned off and muted his body camera during his interactions with Jeremy Lee, the suspect who ended up hospitalized with broken bones and other injuries. Inside the warehouse, officers punched and kicked him while he screamed for help, the lawsuit alleges. After he was violently interrogated and arrested, the only criminal charge prosecutors pursued against Lee was resisting arrest.
Shortly after Lee's lawsuit, Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome ordered the warehouse closed, saying she was previously unaware of the facility's existence.
"The severity of these allegations deeply concerns me, especially given the potential impact on the trust our community places in us," Broome said.
Thomas Frampton, an attorney representing both Lee and Brown, said his team has heard from dozens more people alleging abuse inside the warehouse and they plan to file additional lawsuits.
"This kind of misconduct is so entrenched that people had little reason to expect any kind of positive change," he said, praising the FBI's decision to launch an investigation.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.