VILLE PLATTE — A sexual-misconduct lawsuit involving a Ville Platte police officer has been settled.
According to court documents and reports from the Associated Press, two women accused Officer Larry Paul Fontenot of threatening to pepper-spray and arrest them if they did not show him their breasts. Also, according to the suit, the officer circulated the photos around the department.
The alleged encounter between the defendant and the plaintiffs took place in August 2015. Fontenot quit his job after one of the women filed a complaint. He was arrested, charged with extortion and video voyeurism, and will face those criminal charges in court March 6.
The Justice Department has investigated both the Evangeline Parish Sheriff's Office and Ville Platte Police Department, concluding that both departments have violated the constitutional rights of citizens, according to the Associated Press. Joy Rabalais represented the city of Ville Platte, and Andre Toce represented Fontenot.
As this story was published, terms of the settlement were not finalized.
Two experts from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond shared their thoughts on the outcome of the case.
"I doubt that this case will stimulate reform," Peter Shrock, an associate professor of criminal justice at SELU, said in an email interview with the Louisiana Record. "Louisiana political culture tends to be protective of authority figures such as police officers."
Shrock read a news report about the case for background, but is confident the system in Louisiana is protectionist and rife with crony culture.
"The article indicates that the current case has been settled, and the matter will probably end there," he said. "The only thing that I can imagine changing this equation is if there's a grassroots push for reform (as, for example, through social media)."
Shrock couldn't comment on the possibility of further liability for other officers passing photos around, if that has been alleged.
"I don't know whether any of the other officers who looked at and/or passed along the photographs would be liable for criminal charges," he said.
Shock, citing the report, said race is a major factor as well as power.
"The story doesn't say whether the women who were photographed were white or black," Shrock said. "If they were black, that could affect the likelihood of a grassroots protest campaign, but also the likelihood that any pushback from the criminal-justice system will be successful.”
"I'm not really familiar with this case or with this [Police] Department so I'll just answer generally based on previous experience with such issues," Kenneth Bolton, the department head and associate professor of criminal justice at SELU, told the Louisiana Record in an email interview. “Louisiana has profound community and criminal-justice problems that need a deep, far-reaching approach to address, and I can't see it beginning here."
Bolton also agreed the problems of Ville Platte, though he is not familiar with them specifically, mimic a problem statewide of corruption.
"Normally, individuals who disseminate such hateful, exploitive information/images in the department face policy-oriented penalties within the department that aren't very serious, those who view such images may be admonished or required to undergo more training," he said. "Women officers and/or employees may seek action on the basis of a hostile workplace for women — I doubt it, but it really depends on the people who work there and the culture that they have 'loosely agreed' to abide by. Is someone willing to be ostracized by taking action?"
Bolton made the political connections to corruption and sexual-misconduct attitudes.
"The mayor and/or community leaders could get involved and demand action/redress but will likely only do so if it fits within their political aspirations," Bolton said. "Courts are really hands-off recently. With a Trump Justice Department, I can't see sexual harassment and exploitation taking center stage. Gender/sex in police departments is a huge issue and this is but one example of the extent of the problem."
William Quigley, a law professor and director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University in New Orleans, said the alleged incident will have more implications.
"This story is another example of the deeply illegal conduct of this officer," he said in an email interview with the Louisiana Record. "That will certainly bring more litigation and oversight by people and organizations that believe in upholding the constitution."
Quigley thinks others could face new charges if it is proven the photos were circulated in the department.
"If all this can be proven in the criminal case, this ex-officer's illegal activities may provoke criminal charges against other officers," he said.