Port Allen, LA – A former Port Allen police officer has accused the department’s chief of police of violating his religious freedom by reprimanding him for missing religious counseling sessions.
In a federal lawsuit filed on Friday, Former Port Allen Police Officer Patrick Marshall accused Chief Esdron Brown, who is an elected official, of threatening to suspend or fire him if he didn’t attend monthly counseling appointments with the department’s chaplain, The Advocate reported.
"He's just bitter because he got written up for something, that's why he started all of this," Chief Brown told The Advocate on Monday. "Before that he didn't have a problem. But he got disciplined more than once. That's when they try to find something to get you on."
Officer Marshall, who served the department for 11 years prior to leaving Port Allen to go to another agency in November of 2017, said that Chief Brown told him and other officers that he wanted to have a “saved” department, according to the lawsuit.
The chief posted notices about required monthly meetings with the department’s chaplain and threatened reprimand for noncompliance, the lawsuit alleged.
Officer Marshall voiced his concern regarding the mandatory religious meetings with Chief Brown and was told that he would either be suspended for three months or face termination from the force if he did not attend, according to the lawsuit.
On Oct. 24, 2017, Officer Marshall stayed home with his sick son and failed to attend a scheduled religious session with the chaplain, The Advocate reported.
Chief Brown called the officer into his office the following day and advised him he was being “written up” for the missed session, suspended his “vehicle take-home privileges” for a month, and mandated that he attend an additional four counseling sessions with the chaplain within a 30-day period, the Associated Press reported.
According to the lawsuit, the officer subsequently went to Port Allen Mayor Richard Lee and told him that Chief Brown had created a hostile working environment for those who did not share his personal religious beliefs, The Advocate reported.
Officer Marshall further alleged that the chief would only offer specialized training and promotions to officers who were aligned with his religious views.
After the meeting with Mayor Lee, Officer Marshall’s pre-approved Thanksgiving vacation was canceled by Chief Brown, who also ordered the officer to attend anger management classes, the lawsuit said.
On Monday, Chief Brown said he had not seen the lawsuit but that all of Officer Marshall’s allegations were false, The Advocate reported.
The chief would not comment on why the officer had faced disciplinary action but maintained that it was not related to the allegations raised in the lawsuit.
Chief Brown agreed that he did mandate monthly meetings with the department’s chaplain but said the sessions were not religious.
“These were sessions related to character development, given the scrutiny police officers are under today," Chief Brown told The Advocate. "And if I canceled his vacation, it's based on my need for people at the time."
The chief said he also promoted Officer Marshall at one point since he took office.
“Our promotions are merit-based,” Chief Brown said. “He got everything he deserved.”
However, the rate of turnover in the police department has been high enough that’s come to the attention of some Port Allen City Council members.
Councilman Gary Hubble first raised concerns about Chief Brown’s inability to keep reliable officers on the force in February of 2015, according to The Advocate.
At that point, the chief had hired 16 officers since he took office in January of 2013, but 11 had already quit.
The most recent hiring data showed that Chief Brown has gone back to the city council for approval to hire 28 officers since he took the helm of the department, but at least 14 of those officers are no longer with the department for a variety of reasons, The Advocate reported.