An embattled police department in Louisiana has been hit with a second lawsuit alleging that officers from a street crimes unit dragged detainees to an unmarked warehouse called Brave Cave, where they were assaulted, stripped and subjected to body cavity searches.
The latest allegations against Baton Rouge police were detailed in a lawsuit filed Monday by Ternell Brown, a 47-year-old grandmother who said she was taken to a “torture warehouse” after police officers found bottles of prescription drugs in her car during a traffic stop.
“She was forced to demonstrate to officers that she was not hiding contraband in her vagina or rectum,” the Baton Rouge woman’s complaint states. “After more than two hours, they let her go without charge.” Brown’s lawsuit, which also named the city, Baton Rouge Parish and several officials as defendants, was filed a month after another resident. Jeremy Lee, filed a lawsuit claiming he was taken to Brave Cave in January and beaten by officers.
The street crimes unit called BRAVE, short for Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination, was disbanded after Lee filed his lawsuit, which included a body camera image of the 22-year-old sitting in a chair in what appeared to be a largely empty warehouse.
“It is essentially an unmarked interrogation camp where citizens of Baton Rouge have been detained, strip-searched and sometimes beaten for years,” Thomas Frampton, an attorney for Lee and Brown, said Thursday.
The officers named in the lawsuits “are known for their brutality in Baton Rouge Parish,” Frampton said.
Lee was beaten “so severely that the local jail refused to admit him until he was treated at a nearby hospital,” his complaint says. “There he was treated for broken bones and other injuries.”
The officer who arrested Lee, Troy Lawrence Jr., “has an extensive history of harming members of the public, violating their constitutional rights and escalating routine interactions into hostile and even violent ones,” the complaint says.
Lawrence, the son of Baton Rouge Deputy Police Chief Troy Lawrence Sr., is one of the officers named in Brown’s complaint. According to Lee’s complaint, he resigned from the force in August.
When asked about the BRAVE unit four years ago on FOX’s “First Responders Live,” Lawrence Jr. said, “Like any other big city, when there are guns and drugs, there’s violence.” So that’s going to be the aggressive one Be on our side.”
Lawrence could not be reached for comment. His father said in a brief telephone interview that his son does not yet have a lawyer.
“I’m afraid I won’t be contacting him right now,” Lawrence Sr. said.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul Jr. said in an interview Thursday that Lawrence Jr. was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of assault in a separate incident while he was still with the police and on duty.
Paul said the alleged victim was in handcuffs during the encounter and was being investigated for possession of illegal narcotics.
But Frampton, the attorney, said Thursday that Lee and Brown’s cases are not about “individual rogue officers.”
“This is about a level of institutional rot and institutional responsibility for police misconduct that has rested with the chief and deputy chief for years,” he said.
He said he has heard from other alleged Brave Cave victims who also plan to file lawsuits.
“There will be more,” Frampton said.
Paul said his department has received seven complaints, not just lawsuits, from people who said they were taken to the Brave Cave. He said he has requested a federal investigation and that his department is cooperating with the FBI.
“I didn’t know it was used for strip searches,” Paul said of the warehouse, which until recently was used by police to process confiscated narcotics.
He said he and other city leaders didn’t know it was being used for other purposes until Lee filed a lawsuit.
“When we learned about it, investigated it and learned of these errors, I launched a full investigation into the complaint,” he said. “And right now we have two separate, parallel investigations that are currently actively underway.”
One is an internal affairs investigation, the other is a criminal investigation, Paul said.
Asked about a possible federal investigation, Lesley Hill, spokeswoman for the FBI’s New Orleans office, said: “We are aware of the allegations.”
“Per DOJ (Department of Justice) policy, the FBI does not confirm or deny investigations,” Hill said.
Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said Thursday that “no one was more shocked and frustrated” than her when she learned of the building’s use and ordered its permanent closure.
“This is outrageous what happened to this alleged ‘brave cave’ or facility,” she said. “And we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”