3 Baton Rouge police officers arrested amid investigations into 'torture warehouse'

Three Baton Rouge police officers, including a deputy police chief, were arrested on felony charges amid ongoing criminal investigations and lawsuits connected to an alleged police "torture warehouse."

Deputy Chief Troy Lawrence Sr., Sgt. Jesse Barcelona and Corporal Todd Thomas were booked and released on charges of malfeasance in office, obstruction of justice and theft, according to jail records. Lawrence Sr. and Thomas were also charged with simple battery, records show. Police Chief Murphy Paul said Friday a warrant has also been issued for a fourth officer for malfeasance in office. Lawrence Sr., Barcelona and Thomas have been placed on administrative leave, according to The Advocate.

Paul said the charges stemmed from a September 2020 incident in which Baton Rouge officers assigned to the street crime unit allegedly strip searched, hit and used their Tasers on a man who was under arrest in a precinct bathroom. Paul said the officers unknowingly recorded the incident on a body worn camera, and a supervisor later determined the video showed violations of department policy and excessive use of force, as well as an officer being told to get rid of the body camera and cover up the incident.

"Let's be crystal clear. There is no room for misconduct or unethical behavior in our department," Paul said Friday. "No one is above the law, and that includes members of our own department."

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul provides an update on the death investigation of Nathan Millard, Tuesday afternoon, March 7, 2023, at the department's headquarters in Baton Rouge, La. Millard, a Georgia man who disappeared during a Louisiana business trip on Feb. 23, was found dead Monday in Baton Rouge.T
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul provides an update on the death investigation of Nathan Millard, Tuesday afternoon, March 7, 2023, at the department's headquarters in Baton Rouge, La. Millard, a Georgia man who disappeared during a Louisiana business trip on Feb. 23, was found dead Monday in Baton Rouge.T

Arrests come after scrutiny over alleged 'Brave Cave' misconduct

The arrests come as the department is facing a federal investigation and multiple lawsuits for other alleged misconduct.

Lawrence Sr.'s son, former officer Troy Lawrence Jr., resigned and was also arrested for battery after facing several recent civil rights lawsuits and excessive force complaints. Police said Lawrence Jr. was arrested after detectives reviewed body camera footage of an August incident, which showed a handcuffed man in the rear seat of a patrol car being "dry stunned" with a Taser and given no opportunity to comply with verbal commands.

The department's street crime unit, which Lawrence Sr. commanded before his was promoted to deputy chief in 2020, was known by the acronym BRAVE, for Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination. Recent lawsuits allege Lawrence Jr. and other Baton Rouge police also assaulted suspects in a "torture warehouse" known as the "Brave Cave." Paul described the warehouse as a “narcotics processing facility," at a Baton Rouge Metropolitan Council meeting Wednesday according to The Advocate.

In one case, a man alleged Lawrence Jr. and others took him to the warehouse and severely beat him, causing him to be hospitalized before being jailed for resisting arrest, according to attorney Thomas Frampton.

In another lawsuit, in which $3 million is being sought, Frampton said a 47-year-old grandmother claimed officers found her prescription medication during a traffic stop, took her to the warehouse and strip searched her for drugs before she was released without charges.

Frampton said though the most recent arrests are not directly connected to incidents at the warehouse, “there's a pretty serious, close overlap.” He said the department has broader issues, including a “blatantly unconstitutional strip search policy.”

“The arrest of a handful of officers for various misdeeds is not meaningfully addressing the structural rot that exists in this department,” he said.

Frampton said his clients want to see “real, meaningful change.”

“They've been harmed and they deserve to be made whole monetarily,” he said. “But each of the people that we represent believes strongly that justice looks like something more than dollars. It means accountability for the officers who harmed them, and it means ensuring that this doesn't happen to citizens of Baton Rouge in the future.”

The city and the police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY about the allegations. But the the Baton Rouge Union of Police said in a statement its members are "disheartened and dismayed" by Lawrence Sr. being placed on administrative leave.

"Why, when faced with current allegations about the so-called “Brave Cave” and the Street Crimes Unit, has the administration chosen to take action on an allegation that is more than 3 years old?" the statement said.

Bill Profita, a spokesperson for the union, declined to comment on the arrest or the lawsuits, citing the ongoing investigations, and directed questions to the police department.

"We have an obligation to stand by our officers when accusations are made and to make sure the process is thorough, fair and unbiased," Profita said. "And I think a lot of times people forget the presumption of innocence applies to police officers as well, so that would go along with our thinking on this at this point."

Paul said Friday there are nine ongoing administrative investigations and two criminal investigations. He encouraged citizens to call the FBI, which previously announced it has opened a federal investigation into allegations that members of the Baton Rouge Police Department "may have abused their authority."

"The 'Brave Cave' is now permanently closed. The street crimes unit has been disbanded. We have actively engaged the FBI to ensure thoroughness and as you just heard from Chief Murphy Paul, arrests have been made," Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said Friday. "Now, in concurrence with the chief's comments, transparency and accountability will always be a cornerstone of this administration. Make no mistake about it."

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 3 Baton Rouge officers arrested amid 'torture warehouse' investigation