In body camera footage from a recently filed federal lawsuit, Jeremy Lee faces what he claims was a violent interrogation from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police after being taken to a secret warehouse, known to officers as the Brave Cave, located down the street from a local precinct building. Lee is one of a growing number of people coming forward with allegations that they were interrogated at the facility. (Court documents)
For years, the purpose of an unmarked warehouse down the road from a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police station has remained unknown to the city's residents, except for those who say they were taken there by law enforcement officers.
But recent federal lawsuits have begun to paint a sinister picture of what's been happening at the nondescript structure, located about 300 yards away from the First District Precinct.
Some members of the city's police force have a name for the warehouse: "The Brave Cave." But the lawsuits refer to it as Baton Rouge's "torture warehouse."
In two complaints filed within the past month, a 22-year-old man alleged that police officers beat him during an interrogation at the Brave Cave in January, and a 47-year-old grandmother claimed that officers took her to the warehouse in June where she underwent a strip-search and visual cavity inspection to look for illicit drugs. She had been detained, she said, because her car windows were tinted and police became suspicious after finding she had two types of prescription drugs in one bottle.
"What happened there is unconscionable," Ryan Thompson of the Thompson Justice Institute said during a news conference Monday announcing the complaint from Ternell Brown, the grandmother.
The lawsuits raise questions about a lack of oversight and transparency at the Baton Rouge Police Department and just how many people have been taken to the facility. The number and the names of detainees who have been through the Brave Cave is unknown because it was never documented, police have said. The allegations are serious enough that the FBI is now investigating, according to the Baton Rouge police chief.
Thompson said he and his team have interviewed more than 20 people who claim they were taken to the Brave Cave and believe they are "just scratching the surface." Brown's suit follows a complaint late last month from Jeremy Lee, who alleges officers kicked and punched him after detaining him as part of a drug bust in January.
Baton Rouge Police's Alleged "Torture Warehouse"
The warehouse known by local officers as the Brave Cave sits about 300 yards down the block from the Baton Rouge Police Department's First District Precinct building. The warehouse draws its name from the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination initiative, a now defunct unit that focused on the city's most dangerous neighborhoods from around 2012 to 2018.
After police and the city of Baton Rouge learned of Lee's lawsuit in late August, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome ordered that the facility be permanently closed and said the street crimes unit that conducted the drug raid would be temporarily disbanded, with the officers reassigned to patrol duty pending an internal affairs investigation. Meanwhile, one of the officers who detained Lee has resigned, the mayor said.
"We are very concerned about the allegations, obviously, and they will be investigated thoroughly," Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul Jr. told Law360 in an interview.
Paul said his department is conducting an administrative investigation through its internal affairs division and a criminal investigation is being overseen by the FBI.
"I met with the FBI early on when these allegations first broke," Paul said, adding that the department is cooperating with the federal agency.
The FBI said in a statement that it's aware of the allegations against the police department, but that it "does not comment upon the existence or the nonexistence of any investigation."
Anderson Dotson, parish attorney for the combined government of the City of Baton Rouge and the Parish of East Baton Rouge, declined to comment.
The allegations that Baton Rouge police operated a secret location where they questioned detainees is drawing comparisons to Chicago's infamous Homan Square facility, a former Sears Roebuck & Co. warehouse that police used to question suspects without counsel present. An investigation by The Guardian newspaper found that police took more than 7,000 people there from 2004 to 2015 for clandestine and sometimes violent interrogations.
"The thing was, if you were arrested and taken there, there were no tracks. If your parents or your lawyer were trying to find you, there was no record of you," Chicago attorney Flint Taylor told Law360.
Taylor is one of the founding members of the People's Law Office, which represented dozens of people who alleged they were brutalized by Chicago police officers at Homan Square and other secret locations.
"Rather than to take them and book them at the station," Taylor said, "they would take them first to Homan Square and at Homan Square they would interrogate them, attempt to get information from them, whether it be on guns or drugs, sometimes beat them and on occasion even torture them."
'Something Out of a Movie'
Dale Glover, a Baton Rouge criminal defense attorney with the Glover Law Group, said he'd heard rumblings over the last year about the existence of a site police were using to interrogate and search detainees. Three or four clients reported having been taken to the Brave Cave, although at the time they didn't know it was called that.
"They thought it was logistically part of the process of being arrested," Glover said.
He said the clients told him that officers had taken them somewhere, but not to the parish jail or a police station, that they'd been forced to give up their phones, threatened with violence, and asked questions about certain people in Baton Rouge.
"They thought it was something out of a movie. Some of them felt as though they were being kidnapped," Glover said. "There were no other logistical people there, no fingerprinting machine, no breathalyzer. It was just a warehouse."
The Brave Cave name is a reference to the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination initiative, a now defunct unit that focused on the city's most dangerous neighborhoods from around 2012 to 2018.
An exterior view of the warehouse known by Baton Rouge police as the Brave Cave, where at least two people claim they were improperly detained and questioned by officers. One local attorney says he has interviewed more than a dozen others who say they were questioned at the facility, and the city's police chief told Law360 that the FBI has gotten involved in an investigation into how the warehouse was used. (Court documents)
"There were always allegations in the community that the BRAVE team wasn't disbanded, that they just changed the name of it," Thompson said. "Where my antennas went up was that you still had officers referring to this BRAVE unit that was supposed to be disbanded."
Thompson said police initially denied knowing what the Brave Cave was, but quickly acknowledged they were aware of the warehouse and said it served as the department's narcotics processing center.
"There was no oversight. They said officers get the discretion to take people there as they will, and that they take people there to flip them," Thompson said. "It seemed eerily similar to me to the Chicago Homan Square place."
When Thompson eventually took on Lee's civil case, he said he quickly discovered there was an incomplete record of his client's time in police custody.
Officers detained Lee on Jan. 9 while enforcing a search warrant around 4 p.m. at a house where they suspected drug dealing. Thompson said Lee happened to be stopping by the house to say hello to people he knew when police arrived.
Body camera footage shows officers pinning Lee on a paved street and pulling down his pants as they searched him. At one point, an officer says, "I'm about to bat the living crap out of you," to stop Lee from resisting. In response, Lee denies resisting and tells the officer to "bat me then," but asks him to turn on his body camera first.
From there, however, the official record of Lee's time in police custody becomes patchy.
Lee went on to allege in his lawsuit that the officers intermittently turned off their cameras during the course of his detention, and hours of video is missing from that period of time.
Lee says he was taken to the Brave Cave where three officers kicked and punched him. According to his lawsuit, two other detainees being held in a cell in another room in the warehouse heard his screams and cries for help. There is no video, however, of the alleged beating taking place.
"[The video] picked back up like four hours later and they were in this warehouse with just this wooden chair and [officers] were questioning him," Thompson told Law360.
A still image from an officer's body camera shows Lee sitting on a chair in what looks like an empty hanger. His feet are shackled and he's holding his right arm over his ribs.
The police report of the drug raid states that Lee and two others were taken directly to the First District Precinct, but Thompson said that's untrue. There's no mention of the Brave Cave in the police account. Officers also stated in their report that Lee was uninjured, but Lee went on to say in his complaint that the parish jail refused to accept him when they brought him there early the following morning until he received medical care.
Police brought him to an urgent care center where he was treated for a broken rib and medically cleared for booking on Jan. 10. He spent a week in jail on drug possession charges with intent to distribute and resisting arrest before he posted bond.
Thompson said that the judge who reviewed the police's probable cause affidavit tossed Lee's drug charges because police found only $2 in his pocket. He still faces a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.
While Lee said that police had jumped him at a warehouse, the location of the alleged beating remained unclear until Thompson noticed an officer's radio transmission from a video taken in a patrol car at the house where police detained Lee.
"10-4, en route to the Brave Cave," the officer on the video said.
In Brown's case, she said that two officers from the street crimes unit stopped her car on the afternoon of June 10 and ordered her and her husband out of the vehicle, according to her lawsuit. She alleged that the officers searched her car without their consent, and found bottles of prescription medication.
Her complaint said that officers erroneously told her it was illegal to have two different prescription medications in one bottle, and that they refused her offer to show them proof that her prescriptions were valid.
"We don't know if it's something you bought off the streets, or what?" the officers are quoted as saying in the complaint. She said she was then "forcibly" taken to the Brave Cave where the officers "sexually humiliated her" with their cavity inspection, according to Brown's lawsuit. Brown, who alleged the officers intentionally turned off their body cameras at the Brave Cave, was released after hours without being charged, her complaint said. Her husband, meanwhile, was not detained or charged.
A History of Corruption
Howard Henderson, a professor of justice administration at Texas Southern University and founding director of the Center for Justice Research, said the conditions under which the Brave Cave was allegedly run created an opportunity for rogue police officers to abuse their power.
"The Brave Cave's secrecy and lack of procedures allowed it to operate outside of the rules," Henderson said.
Paul, the Baton Rouge police chief, has said that although he knew the facility existed he was unaware that officers were referring to it as the Brave Cave or that it was allegedly used to question and mistreat detainees.
Henderson said that was troubling, too.
"That's a problem," Henderson said. "Because it suggests that he's not involved in or is not aware enough about what his officers are doing and that's dangerous."
When Paul took over the Baton Rouge Police Department in 2018, he said there was no longer a BRAVE unit. The street crimes unit that is the target of the Brave Cave lawsuits was not a replacement or an offshoot, but it had a similar mission, focusing on the most violent areas and responding to citizen complaints about drugs and crime.
Asked whether he considered it good policing to take detainees offsite from the district station to be questioned without counsel, Paul responded, "Absolutely not."
"When someone requests counsel, that interview should stop, that interrogation should stop," he said, adding that when someone waives their right to counsel and questioning continues, "those interviews should be documented as part of policy."
Paul said the pending criminal and administrative investigations seek to answer many of the questions the Brave Cave lawsuits have raised, including why there is no record of the people processed through the facility, why body camera footage is missing from the officers who detained Lee and Brown, why their report said Lee wasn't injured, and why there is no video of them at the Brave Cave from the facility's cameras.
The Brave Cave lawsuits are the latest black mark on a department that has dealt with several allegations of police brutality and corruption over the past decade. In February, the city reached a $1.17 million settlement with 14 plaintiffs over a lawsuit alleging officers beat and wrongfully arrested dozens of people protesting the fatal police shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling in 2016.
In 2021, an investigation into corruption in the department's narcotics division resulted in prosecutors dropping approximately 700 cases that had been handled by officers who were arrested for stealing property and drugs from an evidence locker and destroying evidence.
Paul cited that investigation as proof that the Brave Cave allegations will be examined thoroughly.
Eugene Collins, the former president of the Baton Rouge NAACP who retired this month, called the Brave Cave allegations "atrocious" and said "nobody could justify that." But he said he's confident in the police chief's ability to investigate the matter.
"That's been my experience over the years. If we brought him a complaint, he looked into it, and a narcotics probe was one of those instances," Collins told Law360. He said the problems with the Baton Rouge Police Department span decades, calling it "one of the most corrupt police [departments] probably over the last 40 years."
"I think Chief Paul has done a lot to clean most of it up. But this was a very bad [department] he walked into," Collins said.
William Most of Most & Associates, who obtained the settlement in the 2016 protests case, has a different view, saying the chief's record in addressing misconduct in his department has been mixed.
"For example, no investigation was conducted into officers perjuring themselves in arrest affidavits or other misconduct related to the 2016 protests," Most told Law360. "In fact, the only officer investigated was the one who said, 'We are violating protesters' constitutional rights.'"
Paul announced his retirement in July, about a month before details of the Brave Cave surfaced, and a new police chief is expected to be appointed in November. He said he made the decision to retire last year.
"I hope that I can complete this investigation before I leave and give the community answers so that the next chief won't have this cloud over his head," he said.
--Editing by Alex Hubbard. Graphics by Ben Jay.