April 15, 2016 02:21 PM

A legacy of bias and favoritism haunted the civil service board’s vote to tighten application requirements for Lafayette’s top cop.

Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux leans in to discuss police chief requirements with Mayor-Parish President Joel Robideaux.
Photo by Robin May

Two phantoms loomed over Wednesday’s Lafayette Fire and Police Civil Service Board meeting: race and Randy Hundley. On the table were Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s proposed changes to board requirements to test for the position of chief of the Lafayette Police Department, specifically amending a 27-year-old bachelor’s degree requirement. After a vigorous and bloated round of public comment, the board voted 4-to-1 for a 30-day comment period on a change that would not only retain the bachelor’s degree requirement, but also remove an aging grandfather clause that exempted officers serving since 1979 from the requirement.

Supporting the tweaked version of the job description were board members Ralph Peters, Jason Boudreaux, Guy Lebreton and Thomas Hayes. Craig Forsyth cast the only vote against it. The new proposal, suggested by Peters, has an additional stipulation that the degree be in criminal justice, public administration, homeland security, business administration, business management or a related field and includes additional requirements for law enforcement and supervisory experience, according to The Advocate. The board will vote to finalize its decision after the public comment period.

The Lafayette Civil Service Board rejected a change in the educational requirement for police chief that would have allowed Interim Chief Reggie Thomas to test for the permanent post.
Photo by Robin May

Robideaux himself appeared before the board asking for a broader pool. His proposal would have established a three-tiered schedule of requirements balancing experience and academic achievement in ratios. Under Robideaux’s rule, a candidate with a bachelor’s degree would also have to have 15 years of service, two of which must be in a supervisory role; a candidate with an associate’s degree would need 20 years experience, five in a supervisory role; and a candidate with no degree would need 25 years experience, 10 in a supervisory role with 40 hours of credit.

Local police union head Dorian Brabham noted, in a statement supporting two of Robideaux’s three tiers, that the qualifications would still be among the state’s most selective.

The change would have allowed current Interim Chief Reggie Thomas to test for the permanent job. Because Thomas does not hold a bachelor’s degree, he’s ineligible to test for the seat he’s currently warming.

To some this was an attempt to sully the noble standards for Lafayette’s Police brass, reportedly among Louisiana’s most strict. No doubt there is buyer’s remorse from the last time an exception was made for the bachelor’s degree requirement — previous Mayor Joey Durel’s appointment of Randy Hundley in 2004.

Hundley’s brief stint at the top of the department, awash with cronyism and mismanagement, ended in indictment and a subsequent guilty plea to attempted malfeasance for bugging a secretary’s office during an internal affairs investigation.

To others, the proposal improved competition and equity in the selection process, allowing more minority applicants to step into the ring. Kenneth Boudreaux, City-Parish Council vice chairman, vehemently denied that the proposal was meant only for the benefit of Thomas, rebuffed any equivalence to Hundley’s appointment and bemoaned an appointment process that he said stacked the odds against minority candidates.

“My views would actually be much different if this was for a single person, like the last time this took place,” Boudreaux told The IND before the vote. “It’s not about changing the rules to take care of someone; it’s about changing something to make it fair, impartial and equitable. You have in this commission right here, you have five white males that are about to make a decision that impacts women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians etc. That’s the reason change has to take place — that sometimes the rules and polices that are in place will not afford the ability to seek the diverse and equitable panel that should be in place.”

Fairness was bandied about quite a bit in public comment. Not the least of which from Andres Landor, a retired narcotics detective and erstwhile activist who’s routinely criticized the department for inequitable treatment of black officers.

Responding to remarks that officers commissioned since 1989 should have known the score on the degree requirement, Landor claimed that black officers are not appointed to posts that readily accommodate pursuit of a college degree while on the beat.

At press time, we have not confirmed Landor’s allegations, and they bear further scrutinty to be sure, but the perception is not a new one. Accusations of racial bias in hiring, firing, promotion and discipline boiled over last year when the NAACP reacted to what it claimed was a light punishment for an LPD officer caught on tape using racial slurs toward citizens and fellow officers.

Some see Robideaux’s proposals as means to placate black supporters by appointing a black chief. While it seems patently obvious that Robideaux’s move was at least intended to install Reggie Thomas, it can’t be judged whether that would have been a good or a bad result. It’s hard to imagine that lifting the four-year degree requirement would harm the nationwide talent search Robideaux has claimed since previous Chief Jim Craft retired earlier this year.

Thomas, by many accounts, is a good man and a great leader. He’s a graduate of the FBI National Academy, a 25-year veteran on the force and a longtime supervisor. He has an associate degree in criminal justice, but for now the civil service board views him as unqualified to test for Lafayette’s top cop.

It’s tempting to say that changing the standards would have righted a racial injustice. Fairness, for all its faults, is not a readily or tidily achievable goal. Should it bear out that LPD’s promotional practice discourages black achievement within the ranks, that should absolutely be addressed. No doubt, such redress would be spearheaded by whoever steps into the chief’s role.

Nevertheless, the merits of Robideaux’s standards, or any standard for that matter, would be judged long-term by the candidates they produce — just as the merits of the civil service board’s decision will be judged in the same way by the folks who lobbied for a change.

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