RAYNE — Racial tensions in Rayne reached a boiling point Thursday when more than 20 black community members protested against alleged police misconduct and asked state and federal authorities to investigate their claims of racial profiling and discrimination.
"Police brutality, harassment and intimidation do exist in Rayne, and we want to give the police chief a chance to root it out," said the Rev. Raymond Brown, president of the New-Orleans based civil rights group National Action Now.
The allegations are tied primarily to a single Rayne Police Department officer, and Chief Carroll Stelly maintains his employees have not unjustly targeted or abused black residents.
"While Chief Stelly supports the protestor's First Amendment right to free speech, he stated that all issues brought up in the protest have been investigated by an internal affairs inquiry and found to be unsustained," Detective Richard Gray said in a news release after the protest.
Rayne police officials were unaware of the protest until the group formed at the department's offices, and Stelly was in Lake Charles at the time for a graduation ceremony for three new officers.
The protesters targeted Officer Joseph Cormier, whom several residents claimed has lied in police reports, falsified speeding ticket information and beaten a local resident without reason.
"There might be a bad apple among you that you don't want to acknowledge," Brown said. "We believe this officer is rotting all the good officers on the force, and if he was in Orleans Parish, the chief of police would have fired him long ago."
Brown came to Rayne after talking with Wendell Price, a Rayne resident who claims Cormier beat him nearly one year ago. According to Price, he was letting his three dogs use the bathroom in the front yard of his home on April 2, 2012 when several officers drove though the neighborhood.
Price said he later learned those officers were searching for a different black male who had been involved in an earlier crime and who had a tan dog similar to Price's. Price said one of the officers who drove by, Cormier, saw his tan dog, pulled into his driveway and immediately told him to put the three dogs in a cage.
Price said he asked the officer why he had to put his dogs in a cage since he was on his own private property, and Cormier allegedly then told him to comply or face arrest. Price, however, said he continued to question Cormier's directions.
"That's when he took his baton out and started beating me repeatedly," Price said. "My two-year-old and my five-year-old had to witness this — their father getting beaten by a white cop for no apparent reason."
Price said he then moved toward his house, at which point Cormier allegedly threw him onto a car hood and began choking him. Price said he then began "grabbing him to get him off me." By this point, another Rayne police officer arrived on the scene, and amid the fight, he tased Price.
Police ultimately charged Price with resisting arrest, battery of a police officer and violation of leash laws, Price said.
Stelly, however, said in the news release that the incident involving Price is "still pending criminal trial in district court," making the timing of the protest "suspect."
"This incident was reviewed by an internal affairs inquiry and sustained the officer's use of force was reasonable and lawful to bring the noncompliant Price under arrest," Gray said in the release. "Chief Stelly welcomes the Price family to request a formal investigation from the Louisiana State Police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation if they believe that criminal conduct occurred."
But Price and Brown said officers conducted a flawed internal investigation and ignored some statements from witnesses and black community members who spoke against Cormier. Price and Brown also noted that the Crowley Police Department arrested Cormier and charged him with domestic abuse battery less than 15 days after Cormier allegedly beat Price.
Gray, however, said those charges against Cormier were ultimately dropped. Gray said Cormier began working for the Rayne Police Department in August 2011, and he said he could not comment on whether his department disciplined Cormier in any way after his arrest.