Aug. 1, 2016 10:46 AM

Lafayette is poised to appoint a police chief to lead us into a post-Ferguson future. It’s critically important we get this right.

District 4 Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux has had Mayor Joel Robideaux's ear for much of the chief-selection process.
Photo by Robin May

Lafayette’s law enforcement system is at a crossroads.

A new sheriff has taken office for the first time in 16 years, and a new chief is expected to take over leadership of the Lafayette Police Department in the coming months.

The entirety of all that has transpired in the last month — not to mention the last two years of tensions that have grown from the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — represents a crucial turning point for Lafayette’s local system of law enforcement. And there are so many unanswered questions.

Will Sheriff Mark Garber continue his predecessor’s progressive, datadriven approach to reducing recidivism? And who will Mayor-President Joel Robideaux select as the city’s next chief of police? Will this new chief be a bridge builder who will fight for training and resources for the department or will we get someone who reinforces the status quo? Most important, how will this new leadership navigate our law enforcement system through what’s continuing to be one of the biggest issues currently facing our nation — that is, how will this permanent chief effectively reconcile the vastly growing divide between law enforcement officers and the minority citizens of Lafayette?

And the burning question: Did Lafayette cast a broad enough net to generate the pool of talented, experienced candidates our city deserves? If not, can and should Robideaux hit the reset button so we get this right?

Thus far, Lafayette appears to be somewhat insulated from what’s happening in so many places across the country, even as close as 45 minutes away in Baton Rouge where the July 5 police killing of Alton Sterling set off one of the biggest protests this year. But it’s not a question of “if” Lafayette will experience a highly publicized and questionable fatal shooting by one of its law enforcement officers — it’s a question of “when.” How that situation plays out will soon be in the hands of the new police chief, who should make among his first priorities reforming how use-of-force allegations and officerinvolved shootings are investigated — because the current policy of police investigating police is not a good one.

“I hope we can take advantage of this transition time to get the best possible leadership in that chief’s position that we can,” says Lafayette City- Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux during a recent phone interview. “As it relates to a shooting involving a police officer, although we don’t want it to be, there’s times when this will take place in line of his or her duty as an officer. We would hope those things don’t happen, but any community in the country is subject to an incident at any given time.”

The Lafayette Police Department has in fact been involved in a number of officer-involved shootings under former Chief Jim Craft, who retired in January, including at least 10 fatal shootings within a six-year period.

“The ones that happened here, a lot of the info we don’t have access to it, but as far as we know the majority of those cases have considered the officer’s use of force to be appropriate,” Boudreaux says. “Some will disagree with that. As we go forward my prayer is that we never have another shooting in Lafayette, in Louisiana or this country. But if it is done, I hope it truly is that lethal force was warranted and necessary to protect life. There are no other circumstances that I would know of where this is OK.”

Since Craft’s retirement, the department has been under the leadership of Capt. Reggie Thomas, a 26-year veteran of Lafayette Police who was disqualified from putting his name in the running to be Craft’s full-time successor because Thomas lacks a bachelor’s degree. Thomas’ ineligibility for the chief’s job comes down to the requirements set by the Lafayette Municipal Fire & Police Civil Service Board, which, at Robideaux’s urging earlier this year, considered changing the qualifications for the post but opted not to do so. So despite his lengthy service with the department, in addition to holding an associate degree in criminal justice and being a graduate of the FBI National Academy, Thomas can’t be chief. More important for many of his supporters, he can’t be Lafayette’s first black chief.

For Boudreaux, the process has been hugely disappointing.

“We’ve really made such progress under the interim chief with community relations,” says Boudreaux, referring to Thomas’ efforts to get a conversation going between the department and Lafayette’s minority communities, including the councilman’s District 4, which encompasses big parts of Lafayette’s Northside.

Thomas could have very well been the chief Lafayette needs, insists Boudreaux. Not only does he express the philosophy that police must change the existing relationship with minorities, but he’s also been attempting to put that idea into action since becoming interim chief at the start of the year. So far he’s doing it through engagement, by getting out there as the chief and talking to the people. For Boudreaux, this is the type of chief equipped for taking Lafayette Police to the next level.

“It’s about getting boots on the ground and having relationships outside of tense situations,” explains Boudreaux. “It’s about the confidence of the people feeling that when their chief, or his deputy chief or majors or captains, lieutenants, whoever it may be, that whenever that uniform appears, there’s a level of comfort and a relationship in place to allow for peaceful resolutions. Right now, Chief Thomas offers us that. He fits that mold of someone who paid their dues, was promoted through the ranks by hard work and dedication, and knows the department inside and out. Unfortunately, the rules in place don’t allow him to apply for the position. Shame on Lafayette, we’re missing an opportunity.”

Thomas is eligible for the police chief jobs in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Monroe. Just not Lafayette.

“Shame on Lafayette if we allow one of our finest — one we trained and developed — to get away from us and go provide his services to another community,” says Boudreaux. “Other communities have their requirements balanced between education and experience. That’s significant because when you’re talking about graduating from the FBI Academy, I think that’s important, and when you talk about rank work, having worked in everything from patrol to narcotics, detective, juvenile services, investigated on behalf the prosecutor’s office; I think all those things should come into play in how we pick the person for the job.”

Fourteen total candidates have since applied for the job — all men, 11 of them white. The job was only advertised for 30 days, between June 6 and July 6, in several national trade publications and websites, the Advocate in Acadiana, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News, according to information provided by Robideaux’s office. It’s certainly questionable whether that amount of time and advertisements in those outlets were sufficient to get the most qualified candidates to apply, and whether the salary range, $101,701 to $123,263, is attractive to high caliber applicants. According to a report from The Advocate, only nine of the 14 are qualified to sit for the civil service chief’s exam on Aug. 11 (see related sidebar for applicant names).

According to the Civil Service Board, once the results of the Aug. 11 test are in, they must receive board approval before being sent to Robideaux’s office. From there, it’s up to Robideaux to pick Lafayette’s next chief. Robideaux has declined to meet with The Independent to discuss this matter and did not answer a series of questions emailed to him for this story.

Capt. Reggie Thomas, interim Lafayette chief
Photo by Robin May
According to an interview with The Advocate in early July, Robideaux expects to finalize his decision within the next three months.

“With the current environment of the relationship with law enforcement in the community, I wish Robideaux would take his time and not rush to hire someone,” says Boudreaux. “This needs to be in all Lafayette’s best interest. I just hope he doesn’t rush and that he utilizes all the resources we have available to get this thing right. As far as the next chief, we need someone who is a very high-level professional, a law enforcement person, someone who has the skills, ability and the proven track record of being able to establish and maintain very substantive relationships with the entire community, in particular, those that are policed the greatest.”

Policed the greatest? He’s talking about minorities. That’s what this is all about. The long-standing history of violence and mistrust between the black community and the police.

“Shootings are symptoms of a greater problem,” says David Khey, who heads the Criminal Justice Department at UL Lafayette, while speaking at a July policing forum hosted by the Acadiana Press Club. For the past 15 years, Khey has lived in a world of this very research, and within that complex world, he sees fragments of answers and explanations for what history tells us is a centuries-old struggle between black Americans and law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter movement was born from a history intertwined with segregation, Jim Crow and slavery.

“Since Jim Crow we’ve just put a Band-aid on this problem,” Khey tells the audience. “Research shows there are disparities in society that are persistent. On the individual level it doesn’t seem that bad. But on a larger scale there are lasting disparities that just aren’t fair. What’s happening now is an example of how these disparities impact us over time. It’s like looking at the O.J. Simpson trial and understanding the power of that verdict. What caused all those emotions back then? We’re seeing that now. There’s a feeling of being under siege by law enforcement. ... It’s going to take a very long time to address these trust issues. But to ignore them, to put another Band-aid will just not suffice. When we say Black Lives Matter, there’s one word missing. It should be Black Lives Matter less. Just adding that one word. Coming to the table on all people deserving fairness everyday is something we’ll deal with this generation. We must first understand what lives get pushed away in society.”

Could this all be a matter of changing our approach to training and recruitment? We often hear about community policing and cultural sensitivity training, but what do these mean in real life?

For Chief Thomas, his short time in office has afforded an opportunity to put ideas like community policing into practice.

“Community policing starts at the top,” says Thomas, another of the panelists for the local Press Club’s forum. “People want to see the chief sit down and talk to people.

We should demand that our higher ranking officers come talk to the community. They need to be out there because they can make changes immediately.”

Thomas has also proposed expanding the department’s recruitment efforts to target more minorities and wants to incorporate additional diversity-focused courses into the department’s 40-hour block of annually required training hours. This is a big step in the right direction.

Right now, African Americans make up only 17 percent of Lafayette’s police force, whereas the citywide population is 32 percent. The percentage of African Americans within the department, says Thomas, should mirror that of the city.

Boudreaux, however, points out that the desire for going into a law enforcement career is dwindling.

“Recruitment is a major component of changing this culture,” says Boudreaux. “Recruitment and getting minorities interested is critical. I’ve spoken to this issue before, you know, that the way people go into law enforcement over the years has changed. I think because of all the opportunities in America the desire and prestige for law enforcement isn’t what it used to be. It used to be police officers were hired in the communities they grew up in, lived in, and were well known in. So if an officer who grew up in Truman or McComb gets a call and knows the lady on the porch, that’s much different than an officer who came here for a career or an education and ends up policing a community he’s not familiar with. Recruitment can make these situations better. I remember a time when we knew officers by their first name. That’s significant when talking about establishing relationships. When officers know the families and they know his family, that changes things dramatically.”

Unfamiliarity with the community you’re policing is where problems are quickest to arise. It’s what leads to misinterpretation, miscommunication, a bigger divide. So how do we get more minorities interested in becoming police officers, especially in the aftermath of the fatal ambush of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge? It’s a lot like our public education system’s need for, but inability to substantially recruit, black male teachers.

“When you have a healthy economy, you got the oilfield going, construction, and you have these deadly attacks on police officers, who wants to do that?” questions Boudreaux. “That desire that once existed, that’s gone. A lot of it has to do with pay and its ability to afford you the quality of life you may want. And you also have men’s wives saying, ‘I don’t want you to be a police officer because I don’t want anything to happen to you.’” So how does all this connect with Lafayette’s next police chief? It’s the next chief who will make the decisions that will determine the future course of this department and its relationship with the minorities of this city. It will be up to that person to decide how and who the department recruits, the resources that will go into proper training of the recruits, and ultimately, how the department approaches minorities in the future. This person will ultimately set the stage for where that relationship goes from here.

“We’ll need of lot of diversity in recruitment and training in areas of diversity and cultural sensitivity,” says Boudreaux. “I’m hoping we can identify someone not afraid to look at policies and procedures and laws on the books to see which of these need to be changed or revisited. I’ve heard from a number of professionals in the judiciary and in law enforcement that we’re still policing and doing things with a 1970s approach. With all the new technology out there and the demands from communities of color, it’s time we look at some new things.”

Boudreaux points to reforms in public education that brought heightened accountability for teachers, schools and districts. He thinks this could work for law enforcement.

“How we train, grade officers, review their performance as it relates to the success of cleaning up and maintaining law and order in our community,” says Boudreaux, “and if we take time to look at these things really closely, unbiased, and with all of Lafayette’s interests in mind, I think in fact we can land us the police chief we need.”

The low applicant turnout appears to leave Robideaux with few options. Or does it?

Even though the nine candidates deemed qualified to sit for the chief exam are scheduled to do so Aug. 11, we think it is pressing that Robideaux hit the reset button, restart the search and cast a wider net in hopes of landing the best possible candidates for the job (and that’s not to say one of the existing applicants is not the best person to lead our police force).

For guidance on how to undertake a comprehensive search, Robideaux could look to the example of the city of Memphis, which is paying the International Association of Chiefs of Police $40,000 to conduct a legitimate, nationwide search for a police director (the equivalent of Lafayette’s chief). Since 1974, every police director in the city has been homegrown, writes Otis Sanford, who holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism at the University of Memphis, in a June column for The Commercial Appeal, a daily newspaper. And with only one exception, all have come up through the Memphis Police Department ranks. Amid immense pressure from political and community leaders to name Interim

Chief Michael Rallings to the permanent job, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has remained steadfast in his commitment to find the best police director he can, Sanford notes in his column.

“I think at the end of the day, the mayorpresident has the option to make sure he has before him a candidate that satisfies what he wants for chief of police,” Boudreaux comments. “That authority is granted to him.

What the rules say as related to this with civil service positions is if a director or person making the selection doesn’t see in a particular candidate everything he wants to see that he can possibly call for additional info, or another test.”

It’s hard to say which way Robideaux will go. But he should not rush to have a new chief in place by some artificial deadline.

By all accounts, interim Chief Thomas is doing a fine job of trying to tackle problems that have festered for decades and will continue to do so until the right person to lead this community’s law enforcement and community outreach can be identified, recruited and hired at a competitive salary.


THE SHORT LIST

Here are the nine applicants currently scheduled to test for chief of the Lafayette Police Department.

Toby Jean Aguillard, 47, director of cyber crime prevention at Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office; 19 years law enforcement experience

James Benoit, 35, trooper for Louisiana State Police; 16 years experience

Forrest Blanton Jr., 45, LPD sergeant; 18 years experience

Vaughn Burris, captain and assistant chief with Lafayette Police, 26 years experience

Nathaniel Clark, 56, former deputy chief in Albany, Ga., and chief in Pine Bluff, Ark.; 20 years experience

Derek Pacifico, 47, retired sergeant with San Bernadino (Calif.) County Sheriff’s Office, 22 years experience

John Rogers, 40, former litigation specialist for Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office and candidate for sheriff in last fall’s primary; 17 years experience

Joey Sturm, 47, UL Lafayette’s police chief; 19 years experience

Samuel Wyatt, 45, director of investigative audit services at LSU System; 24 years experience