Avoyelles Deputy’s Certification Revoked Before Fatal Arrest; Officers he Hired Also Accused of Abuse

Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy Brandon Spillman’s professional certification was in revoked status last year at the time he placed Armando Frank in a neck hold that contributed to Frank’s death.

The Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, which establishes training and certification protocols for Louisiana law enforcement officers, revoked Spillman’s certification on June 15, 2017, about one month after his hiring date.

Spillman did not complete a required refresher course to reinstate the certification until Nov. 15, 2017, about three weeks after Frank was killed during a botched arrest, which was captured on body camera footage.

The revocation stemmed from Spillman’s failure to keep up with in-service training requirements during his previous job as an officer with the police department in Simmesport, a town of about 2,000 on the eastern edge of Avoyelles Parish.

Spillman worked in Simmesport for about five years, including two as the police chief. Some of the officers he hired and supervised were never POST certified, and at least two have been repeatedly accused in lawsuits of using excessive force.

The certification is a standard qualification for patrolmen, jailers and others defined in state law as peace officers, though it isn’t always the norm in smaller agencies. The Louisiana legislature in recent years has tightened certification requirements, but policies at some agencies don’t reflect changes to the law.

Two Simmesport officers that Spillman hired, Charles Johnson and Anthony Burns, are accused of using unnecessary force on a combined four occasions over a 19-month period in 2015 and 2016. Spillman was the Simmesport chief from March 2014 to May 2016, and two of these incidents involving Johnson and Burns occurred after he stepped down as chief. One of the Simmesport lawsuits settled, another three are pending.

The defendants in the Simmesport cases have flatly denied the allegations in court filings without elaborating on the circumstances, although Johnson has provided additional details in two depositions and a brief interview with The Advocate.

Spillman did not respond to multiple voicemail messages. Burns did not respond to a message placed with the warden of the Pointe Coupee Parish Detention Center, where Burns was recently on administrative leave from his job as a deputy.

Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff Beauregard Torres told The Advocate on Sept. 27 that Burns was on leave at that time because he used his taser on a handcuffed inmate. The jail warden, Steve Juge, said the following week that Burns had been cleared to return to work.

Burns has no history of attending POST certification training, according to an officer history report provided by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.

Johnson was separated from his job with the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 10 after nearly two years, according to Greg Phares, the chief criminal deputy. Phares would not elaborate on the reasons for Johnson’s departure, citing advice from the agency’s lawyer.

Johnson told The Advocate he resigned from the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office because he has kidney problems.

Johnson has attended POST certification training twice this year, failing both times to complete the program, according to his officer history report. He previously attended training and failed the exam in 2013.

Spillman remains an active Avoyelles Parish sheriff’s deputy after a grand jury in March declined to indict officers in the Frank case.

Their lack of active POST certifications calls into question whether Spillman, Johnson and Burns were qualified to work on the street during a time in which they were involved in a string of controversial apprehensions.

That officers like Johnson and Burns continued to work in POST-certified positions without ever obtaining the certification illustrates how officers can shuffle from one agency to the next without fulfilling training mandates.

“It’s hard to say (an officer) is violating his training when he has no training,” said Christopher Washington, the Baton Rouge attorney representing plaintiffs in the four Simmesport cases. “It’s almost like they can be negligent in failing to train these officers, and that negligence insulates them from liability.”

Certification requirements

State law requires full-time peace officers to successfully complete a certified training program within one year of initial employment at any Louisiana agency. Peace officers are defined to include those who perform law-enforcement activities such as making arrests and performing searches and seizures, as well as those who have custody and control of inmates.

Those failing to meet initial training requirements “shall be prohibited from exercising the authority of a peace officer,” according to state law.

Peace officers are further required to annually complete 20 hours of in-service training, and failure to do so results in automatic 90-day suspension of POST certification. Revocation occurs if the in-service hours are not completed during the suspension period. An 80-hour refresher course is needed for reinstatement.

Spillman’s revocation last year was among 81 related to in-service training gaps, according to the law enforcement commission. While the law requires full-time peace officers to complete the initial training, the consequences of revocation are less clear.

In any case, common sense calls for revoked employees not to work as peace officers until they are reinstated, said Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre, president of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

“Certainly the intent of the legislation in my mind is, if you are revoked, you lack the ability to perform the duties of a peace officer,” Webre said. “That’s how I would apply it in my agency, and I think that would be the common understanding.”

That’s not how it works at the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office, where Chief Deputy Steve Martel acknowledged there is no policy concerning deputies with revoked certification.

Martel argued that the revocation of professional licensure doesn’t necessarily impact job performance. He compared Spillman’s certification status at the time of Frank’s death to that of “a doctor or CPA or someone else who doesn’t meet their continuing education requirements and their license is revoked for the deficiencies.”

“It doesn’t mean they are incapable of actually performing their functions. It means they are deficient,” he said. “The fact that his POST certification had these deficiencies, I don’t think it would mean he forgot all his training.”

Still, Spillman’s certification status could factor into a federal lawsuit Frank’s family is pursuing against the Sheriff’s Office, as well as Spillman and the other officers involved.

Attorneys for the family are likely to examine whether the officers were properly trained, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans-based Metropolitan Crime Commission.

“If, in fact, the Sheriff’s Office was derelict or not timely in maintaining training, much less requiring that officers remain current with their certifications, that would be a further indicator on lack of emphasis on training,” Goyeneche said.

A law enacted last year stipulates that the one-year certification deadline is uninterrupted if officers switch agencies within the state during that first year. The law was intended to ensure officers don’t jump from one agency to the next without getting certified, Webre said.

“You work for 11 months, and then you would leave and then get hired and start the clock over,” Webre said, describing the loophole the law was meant to close.

There are approximately 23,000 certified peace officers in Louisiana, according to the law enforcement commission, but the commission does not track how many officers are working without certification.

Some agencies haven’t adapted their policies to the new law. The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office policy concerning certification, for example, is that all new hires must achieve certification within one year, Martel said.

That means it’s possible to work as a non-certified Avoyelles Parish deputy for a full year after working as a non-certified officer somewhere else for most of the previous year.

The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office isn’t the only agency with an outdated policy. Sheriff Beauregard Torres of Pointe Coupee Parish said he wasn’t aware of the requirement that all officers obtain POST certification within one year of employment, even if they switch agencies.

“That opens up a whole different set of circumstances,” Torres said. “It’s something we have to deal with.”

For full story visit: https://www.kpvi.com/news/national_news/deputy-s-certification-was-revoked-at-the-time-of-fatal/article_4142685b-6e2a-5b5a-a064-6815c8043300.html