[Editor's Note: This story was corrected to reflect that Duson officers were making approximately $2,300 a month before the pay increase to $3,000 per month.]
Kip Judice has seen first-hand just how far the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office has come in the last three decades. And come May 1, having spent 30 years with what's become one of Louisiana's most progressive and respected law enforcement agencies will prove vital as he becomes Duson's next chief of police.
But Tuesday marked a change for Duson with the swearing in of its newest chief, bringing in renewed hope for the town's long-troubled police department.
The Independent spoke by phone with Mayor Johnny Thibodeaux shortly before Tuesday night's swearing-in ceremony during the town council's monthly meeting. Thibodeaux, who's been mayor almost five years now, doesn't hold back his excitement over the arrival of Kip Judice as his new chief of police.
"I'm humbled and extremely blessed by this opportunity, of Kip Judice deciding to come and help us out in this situation," says Thibodeaux, who played a big role in Judice's appointment. "If you don't know, we've had our problems in the past, but with his law enforcement experience and background, I think it's going to be really good for Duson. Our goals and our direction for the department are already looking so much brighter than in the past. Kip has great ideas, and his goals are extremely good for the town of Duson; he's already lifting the bar higher on our goals for what the department can be. And we'll do our best to meet his needs because we just can't go back to the way things were before."
Judice still reports every day to the sheriff's office, but since his appointment as Duson's chief last month he's been sizing up the small town department, finding its weaknesses and prioritizing his plan for bringing it into the 21st century. And at the top of the list is officer pay.
"I immediately recognized this as a big issue. Having the right pay is how you attract the right people — pay matters," Judice tells The Independent.
Judice found that at a rate of $14.50 an hour, Duson's officers were the lowest paid in Lafayette Parish.
That pay scale, however, took a major shift during Tuesday's meeting, as Judice followed his swearing-in with a pitch to the council for the much-needed pay hike. And the council was on board with the request, approving a monthly raise in officer pay from approximately $2,300 to $3,000, thereby bringing the department's officer pay rate from the lowest to the highest among the small law enforcement agencies of the parish.
And it didn't end there. With a department made up of only two officers for the last four months, coupled with a part-time office worker, additional manpower also found itself at the top of the new chief's priority list.
Those two officers, according to Judice, have worked 12 hour days every day for the last four months, with the day and night shifts split between the two. One of the two officers starts at 6 a.m. and works until 6 p.m. when the second officer takes over. And they've gone like that non-stop without a day off for well over 100 days.
"An officer just can't sustain for that long," says Judice. "They’re trying their best, but having to deal non-stop with other people’s problems and all the drama that comes with police work gets tough for officers who are also having to deal with their own personal sanity at the same time. Not having a day off for four months — that's just unacceptable."
So Judice also used Tuesday's council meeting to request approval to hire three more officers. The council approved two, which will bring the department up to four; the addition of that fifth officer will have to wait for now. The council also authorized Judice to redefine the office worker's position from a part-time clerk to a full-time office manager, with additional duties like keeping track of officer training and certification requirements.
For Judice, it's a good start. He also knows he's facing an uphill climb in the coming months and years before the Duson PD is up to the standards he's come to expect in his time at the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office.
"The evidence room is in need of serious professionalization, there's no order, everything’s just stacked randomly. I want to start by putting all the evidence in numerical order based on case numbers," says Judice as he runs through his long list of priorities for the department. "This is also a department that was never media-friendly. They saw the media as the enemy, but the public has a right to know, and that's how we're going to operate from here on. We have a substandard policy manual. I also want our officers to start submitting their reports within five days. These two guys now, they have a lot of heart — just look at what they've done for the department over the last four months — they're professional, but they also need the right guidance. Right now, it's taking about 20 days to get reports submitted, which means if you get in an accident in Duson, you'll be waiting around a month just to get your accident report."
Judice's priority list is long, and daunting, but he says he's ready to meet it.
"In my 30 years I’ve seen personally how [the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office has] come such a long way, especially when you compare it to other sheriff’s offices like in Iberia and Vermilion parishes. It’s just a huge difference in the way things are done; throughout the region, they’re talked about it for being so progressive," explains Judice.
"Something I’ll take away from working under Sheriff [Mike] Neustrom is how to make effective change by saying, ‘Here’s the end goal, but let’s not take a leap to get there, but instead let's set several small objectives to accomplish at a time so instead of feeling overwhelmed, the staff can see the progress they're making. It works," Judice continues. "There's a lot of things we'll have to do to get this department where it needs to be, but the good news is this community here in Duson is ready and behind us."