On May 31, 2007, Perry Gallow, then the police chief in Opelousas, wrote a letter to the mayor and city council informing them that on “May 18, 2007, Police Officer Clay Higgins rendered all equipment/property in his possession to Assistant Chief Smith/Opelousas Police Department, thereby resigning his position as Police Officer. A recommendation of disciplinary action, suspension without pay, regarding Mr. Higgins was approved at the Special Council Meeting of May 15, 2007. Due to his abrupt resignation, disciplinary action cannot be imposed.”
In addition to the letter to the mayor and council informing them of Officer Higgins’ resignation, Gallow attached a series of police department documents from his office including minutes of the Opelousas Police Department’s Discipline Review Board concerning the March 14, 2007, incident. Included among several accounts of police misconduct lodged against several officers within those minutes — their names are redacted — was the accusation against Patrol Officer First Class Clay Higgins: “Pfc. Clay Higgins used unnecessary force on a subject during the execution of a warrant and later gave false statements during an internal investigation. Although he later recanted his story and admitted to striking a suspect in handcuffs and later releasing him ..."
The account details a pair of general orders in the police code of conduct Higgins was accused of violating and recommended four actions:
1) Demotion from Patrolman First Class to Patrolman
2) Reassignment to a Patrol Shift for more direct supervision and training
3) Immediate removal from the SWAT Team
4) 160 hours suspension from duty without pay
As Gallow’s May 31, 2007, letter to the mayor and council indicates, the council two weeks earlier had approved the disciplinary measures during a special council meeting. Three days after the council approved the discipline, Higgins turned in his gear and resigned from the department.
According to Higgins, a Republican who is now a leading candidate in the 3rd Congressional District race to replace Rep. Charles Boustany, the incident in question occurred when he and fellow SWAT Team members were guarding the perimeter of a drug bust and a car breached the perimeter. The man in the car, Higgins says, claimed to have cash in the suspected drug house and wanted to retrieve it. The man was detained and handcuffed, according to Higgins, and became belligerent with officers and threatened team members, at which point Higgins slapped a cigarette out the man’s mouth.
The man was eventually released and, according to Higgins, went to the hospital — although he had no injuries, Higgins maintains — and filed a complaint. When a higher-up called Higgins into his office some time later to inform him of an internal affairs investigation into the incident, Higgins says he couldn’t believe it.
“I was in shock that this was happening,” Higgins recalls.
Higgins admits that he denied the accusation in an initial report he submitted to internal affairs and repeated the lie when questioned by the captain, but says he felt guilty about it within days. “I couldn’t live with that,” Higgins says. “I couldn’t sleep.”
So, he says, he called the captain a few days later and fessed up to slapping the detained man. But Higgins insists once the disciplinary measures were recommended, which he says he believes were overly harsh and unprecedented in OPD history, he was willing to take his lumps. Some time in April 2007, while he awaited the council's approval of the month-long suspension without pay, he was allowed to continue training with the SWAT Team because a SWAT competition was coming up in May, although he wasn’t allowed to go on SWAT operations during the waiting period.
It was in a light moment around a swimming pool in LaPlace outside New Orleans at that May competition, Higgins insists, where his career with OPD unraveled, and not because the council had accepted the disciplinary measures recommended by the disciplinary board.
“I referred to Chief Perry Gallow as a peacock — a peacock — a colorful, flightless bird. What we did not know is that Perry had someone recording that conversation, and when the competition was over, the entire SWAT Team was brought into the presence of the chief, and the entire SWAT Team was disbanded,” Higgins says, his voice rising in the now-characteristic way he can make an ordinary utterance sound like Moses waving the 10 Commandments. “That’s why the SWAT Team was disbanded — because I called Perry a peacock — and everybody laughed about it.”
“On that day that we all turned in our gear, we were in shock,” Higgins continues. “This was in May. And I went to my captain in charge of the SWAT Team and I said, ‘Cap, I’m the one that called the chief a peacock — I’m responsible for this. I don’t want the team to suffer for this.’ And I said I’ll go to the chief and tell him this.”
Higgins says the captain told him not to do so.
“I decided right then, on that day, that my career was over at OPD — that I would never, ever recover from this peacock thing; that I had hurt the chief’s feelings — I didn’t mean to. ...I would’ve never said that about the chief if I knew he was going to hear it. ...But I knew I’d never get past it — he was infuriated by it. So, because of that I went into the chief’s office the following week and I turned in my badge and my gear and I resigned.”
Higgins’ account of his departure from OPD leaves plenty of questions. Why, for instance, would Gallow order a subordinate to secretly record the SWAT Team’s pool-side conversation? Is it merely coincidence that Higgins elected to resign from the department only three days after the city council accepted the disciplinary measures recommended by the Discipline Review Board?
Unfortunately, our conversation ended late Thursday afternoon as Higgins stepped into a campaign event.
But there’s much more to come in what appears to warrant a series on Capt. Clay, including many questions about his tenure at the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office and his sudden departure from the SLPSO in February of this year. KLAF, the local NBC affiliate, reported on some of that Wednesday night, but only scratched the surface.