Sitting Down in the Middle of History in Bunkie, Louisiana

All the hot button issues were on the table in Bunkie, Louisiana last week. 

At seven in the morning I hooked up with a couple of French journalists and headed down to Church Point to pick up Ann Colomb, the central actor in Radley Balko’s excellent feature article.  The journalists were interested in doing a Jena story (of course), but I talked them into considering the Colomb and Bunkie sagas as well.  After picking up Ann Colomb, we headed north to Jena where we had lunch with Caseptla Bailey.  Finally, we all drove down to Bunkie, a little community about an hour south of Jena.

None of this made any sense from a logistical standpoint; but in my mind all these stories are rooted in a common problem: small town authority figures who view poor people of color with thinly disguised disdain. 

The march to the Bunkie police station is well covered by Abbey Brown’s informative article in the Alexandria Town Talk.   The real action took place later that day in a little private club by the railroad tracks featuring a bar, a dance floor and a pool table.  As usual, local church leaders were distancing themselves from anything controversial.

“You know what side of town you on?” a middle-aged Bunkie resident asked me.

“I’m guessing, the black side,” I replied.

“You got that right,” he said.  “Everything on this side of them tracks is on the black side; all the money’s on the white side.  That’s all you gotta know about Bunkie, Louisiana.”

At about 6:30, the celebrities from Lafayette, Alexandria, Dallas and Baton Rouge arrived in black SUVs.  There were a couple of FBI agents, two Assistant US Attorneys from Lafayette, two representatives of the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, and Donald Washington, United States Attorney for the Western Division of Louisiana.

Mr. Washington informed me that he reads my blog.  “I thought you might,” I replied. 

Bunkie is the third Friends of Justice case that has tested the mettle of the US Attorney: the Colomb case, Jena, and now Bunkie. 

Washington got off to a rough start in the Colomb case by suggesting that Ms. Colomb and her three sons were guilty even though the DOJ had decided to drop all charges against them.  Fortunately, there are signs that Washington is reconsidering that hasty assessment.

The United States Attorney didn’t fare much better in Jena.  Entering the story before a tidal wave of international media attention broke over the community, Washington informed the media that (a) the official response to the noose incident and the prosecution of the Jena 6 was untainted by racial bias of any kind, and (b) there was no meaningful association between the hanging of the nooses and the assault on Justin Barker three months later. 

It wasn’t long before Donald Washington found himself in the nation’s capital face-to-face with Maxine Waters and Sheila Jackson Lee.  The black politicians were outraged by his characterization of the Jena affair and demanded an explanation.  The US Attorney kept his wits about him while those around him were losing theirs and impressed observers with his thoughtful answers to vitriolic questions.

Now, in a weird juke joint in Bunkie, Louisiana, Donald Washington looked like a seasoned politician who had learned to parse his remarks for the wider world.  By the time the meeting was twenty minutes old it was standing room only and the little air conditioning unit in the wall was struggling to compete with the body heat.

It was difficult to know what to talk about.  Local residents facing pending charges were cautioned by representatives on both sides to avoid discussing legal particulars.  “If you are represented by counsel,” Donald Washington told the gathering, “you probably shouldn’t be talking to me.”

The issues in Bunkie revolve around charges of excessive force, the alleged falsification of evidence, and warantless searches.  One woman informed the meeting that the Bunkie Police Department (usually represented by Detective Chad Jeansonne) had searched her home eight or nine times, always without a warrant.  Jeansonne had informed her that he could search her place anytime he wanted without a warrant.

Technically, this is partly true.  Officers facing “exigent circumstances” are allowed to search a dwelling without taking the time to get permission from a local magistrate.  The operative term is “exigent”.  An officer must believe that something dreadful will happen if he waits even a few moments to enter a residence. 

For instance, if there is reason to believe that death or serious physical harm may be averted by a warrantless search, officers are permitted to proceed. 

But it didn’t sound as if the searches in question qualified.  If the woman was telling the truth (and there was no reason to believe she wasn’t) the Bunkie Police Department has some serious explaining to do.  If the woman’s experience is an egregious cased of normal practice, the protest staged earlier in the day was fully justified.

Many of the out-of-town activists were convinced that the issues in Bunkie are being understated.  “What we’ve got here is a house on fire,” one outspoken speaker from Lafayette told the assembled officials, “and we’re hearing from you that you’re going to get to it.”

Mr. Washington wasn’t sure how to respond to the accusations being lodged against local law enforcement.  On the one hand, he didn’t want to discuss criminal cases; on the other hand, he seemed frustrated by the general, non-specific nature of some of the complaints.  He had just come from a meeting of respectable Bunkie African American residents who had assailed him concerns about “loud music, sagging pants and drugs.”  Whom was he to believe?

Bunkie Police Chief, Mary Fanara had received 68% of the vote in the most recent election, Mr. Washington reminded the crowd.  If her police force was out of control, he seemed to ask, why was she so popular?

It was quickly obvious that many aggrieved Bunkie residents didn’t know where to go with their concerns.  “You go to Marksville [site of the Parish courthouse] and ask who to call, and they won’t tell you,” one resident complained.  “Then you bring a complaint to the police chief and she just laughs in your face.  A complaint goes from your mouth to the police chief, to the District Attorney, to the judge and into the garbage.”

“Sometimes, there are bona fide reasons that a person is reluctant to make a report,” Washington acknowledged; “but at the end of the day, you’ve got to make a report.  If you say, ‘I can’t report it,’ we’ve got a stalemate that can never be addressed.  The state police is an option; but you can also go to the FBI.”

This was the opening Jerriel Bazile had been waiting for.  Mr. Bazile’s brother, Larry, had been accused of selling drugs to an FBI agent . . . or to an FBI agent accompanied by a confidential informant . . . or to the agent and a second defendant . . . Chad Jeansonne’s incident reports reflect all three conspiracy theories. 

“I myself tried to contact the FBI in Alexandria,” the burly Dallas businessman said.  “Larry Lambert would not listen to me.  So I called the FBI in New Orleans.  They told me I had a legitimate case, but they didn’t want to cross jurisdictional lines.  So I called the FBI in Lafayette, and got the same message.  So I was forced back to Alexandria where I know Larry Lambert isn’t going to listen to me.”

That said, Mr. Bazile admitted that local residents needed to do a better job of documenting their complaints.  The woman who has endured repeated warrantless searches was immediately on her feet brandishing a sheaf of paper work.  “You want documentation?” she asked.  “I’ll show you documentation!”

Now it was time for King Downing of the national ACLU to ask a pointed question.  “What threshold of stories of this sort would warrant an investigation?” he asked.  “There’s another form of litigation called pattern and practice.”  Downing seemed to be suggesting that people like Donald Washington don’t need the kind of hard facts that would convince a jury if the volume and nature of complaint is sufficiently high.

One of the prosecutors told the group that the Department of Justice had prosecuted one pattern and practice case that he could recall.  He thought it was in New Iberia but, “I don’t want to mistake it because it happened so long ago.”

Finally, Donald Washington addressed the elephant in the room.  “We’ve heard Detective Jeansonne’s name a lot,” he said, “but detective Jeansonne has been involved in three drug roundups in the past year and we need to establish if we are dealing with backlash.”

This was essentially a restatement of Mary Fanara’s oft-published argument that the only folks complaining in Bunkie are drug defendants and their kinfolks. 

King Downing countered with a question about the Bunkie Police Department’s association with federal narcotics task forces.  He seemed to be suggesting that the feds may be reluctant to investigate the Bunkie Police Department because the FBI and the ATF (Alcohol, Tabacco and Firearms) are complicit in much of the trouble.

The Larry Bazile case suggests that this might occasionally be true.  When, according to Chad Jeansonne’s various reports, a single FBI agent is associated with three mutually exclusive versions of a single drug deal you wonder how that agent feels about it.  In fact, you wonder if the agent even exists.  How can you ask hard questions about Mr. Jeansonne without embarrassing the FBI?

Finally, King Downing asked the question the meeting had been circling for at least two hours.  Turning to the line of public officials seated on stools, Downing said, “What are you going to do when a citizen complaint is contradicted by a police statement?  How do you adjudicate between the two; or is it just a wash?”

“It’s not a wash,” Assistant US Attorney Stephanie Fielding assured Downing.  “But you have to ask some questions.  Was there a witness?  Does the report seem unusual?  Does this fit what a cop would normally do?  It is a process of analyzing the whole situation.”

Todd Cox, an FBI agent from New Orleans, brought the meeting to a close with his first comment of the evening.  “I don’t think a case like this could be built on one complaint,” he said.  “It’s a building process.”  If so, the process appears to be building in Bunkie.

Donald Washington was pointing to his watch.  It was well after nine o’clock and the meeting was well into it’s third hour.  There appeared to be a consensus that we had covered as much ground as we could cover in one meeting.

I was elated.  Donald Washington had brought an impressive array of high-ranking officials to a little two-bit town in Central Louisiana to talk to the local police department, an organization of respectable church people concerned about sagging pants and, finally, a roomful of aggrieved residents and concerned advocates from Louisiana, Texas and New York. 

I asked the French journalists for their take on the meeting.

“It was wonderful,” the photographer told me.  “It’s just like sitting down in the middle of history.”