AN INFAMOUS LOUISIANA SHERIFF IS ON HIS WAY OUT. NOW WHAT?
By Jessica Pishko, The Appeal
Derrick Sellers, a 33-year old U.S. Marine veteran, can no longer see properly and suffers from the headaches and disorientation associated with brain injuries sustained during war. But Sellers said he didn’t get these injuries while serving overseas.
According to court documents, Sellers was housed at the Iberia Parish jail in Louisiana in September 2013 when, one evening, a guard forced him and a few other detainees to kneel in a visiting room with their noses against the wall and their hands behind their backs. Sellers, who had a pre-existing back problem, lay down. When he eventually got back up, a group of guards and a lieutenant pinned him down and beat him over the head. They sprayed mace in his face. They hit his face with their hands, feet, knees and metal objects. They broke his left cheekbone all the way into his eye socket.
After the attack, Sellers went to the hospital, and when he returned to the jail, he says, he was placed alone in a cell, without his medications and given only a liquid diet. After his release, he filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Louis Ackal individually and as the sheriff in charge of the jail, along with the warden of the jail, and unnamed deputies who participated in the attack.
In February this year, Sellers settled with the Iberia Parish sheriff’s office for $2.5 million, the largest payout so far for an office that has been sued dozens of times, many of those over injuries caused by deputies assaulting people housed in the parish jail.
Ackal isn’t personally liable for these costs. Instead, they are covered by the Louisiana Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Program, which has now paid out over $6 million just for Ackal’s office. (One lawsuit settled for an undisclosed amount, so the total is most likely higher). Ackal has cost the program so much money that he was kicked out in 2016, the same year he was acquitted of federal civil rights charges for similar conduct.
In an email, Ackal said the $6 million figure was inaccurate, because “the insurance companies refused to try the cases” even though some were winnable, he said.
Ackal, who had previously said it would be “a cold day in hell” when he resigns, told The Advocate in 2018 that he didn’t intend to run in the October 2019 election. “I’m done. I’m beat up. I’m tired,” he said in an interview, though the candidate registration deadline has not yet passed.
Still, it’s unclear whether his departure would bring true change to Iberia Parish. So far, the only candidate who has announced a run is Roberta Boudreaux, who challenged Ackal in the last election and got 44 percent of the vote. Boudreaux worked for the Iberia Parish sheriff’s office and was the warden of the jail before Ackal came into office. Though Boudreaux is seen as a viable candidate, some critics say her track record as warden was flawed and aren’t sure she can turn around the long-troubled office.
The repercussions of a sheriff like Ackal are bound to last longer than his term in office. Advocates say that thinking a simple change of the guard will make everything better is part of what caused the problems in Iberia Parish in the first place.
“This does not exist in a vacuum,” said Leroy Vallot, a local activist. “People have not been held accountable.”
Though sheriffs are powerful in most states, in Louisiana they have amassed an unusual amount of political might. According to the 1974 Louisiana Constitution, sheriffs are the highest law in the land as the “chief law enforcement officers.” That means sheriffs are not “subordinate” to any other office, as Sheriff Jeff Wiley of Ascension Parish framed it in a videoproduced by the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.
This has sometimes been taken to mean that there is no law enforcement official who can police the sheriff. And it often means that the sheriff feels empowered to investigate cases anywhere in the parish—even if there is a local police department.
Iberia Parish, home to roughly 72,000 people, has a long history of sheriffs and their employees who abused their power. Gus Walker, a high-ranking deputy during the 1940s known as “Rough House Walker” and “Killer Walker,” took over during a time when white people in the parish were concerned about the growing power of Black residents and their demands for the repeal of Jim Crow laws.
Walker was accused by the FBI of beating and abusing Black community leaders as a way of intimidating them. Under the direction of then-sheriff Gilbert Ozenne, he used his position to drive away Black leaders who might foment dissatisfaction with white supremacy or encourage protests. It was, in the words of a Louisiana man quoted in Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 by Adam Fairclough, a way “to prevent the blacks from getting the upper hand.”
The parish police department has also been plagued by allegations of racism and abuse. The city disbanded the department as a cost-saving measure, and in 2004 contracted with the Iberia Parish sheriff’s department to police the streets. But the sheriff’s department has proved just as problematic, advocates say, especially since Ackal took the helm.
Ackal came into office in 2007 on a reformer platform, promising to bring integrity to the office and root out corruption. A native of New Iberia, he had been a state trooper and served in Louisiana state government before he retired to Colorado, which gave him a worldly appeal, according to advocates, in the eyes of the parish electorate. Ackal came out of retirement, he said, when he heard about the problems in his beloved hometown.
But Ackal quickly courted controversy. One of his first moves was to dissolve the internal affairs unit for the whole department. Almost as quickly as he came into office, he made his mark not just with his personality—plain-spoken, back-slapping, tough-talking—but also the frequent violence his deputies inflicted onto the parish’s residents, especially Black ones.